02/05/2009

Palm Beach County Schools Reach Agreement with SPLC, Advocates to Reduce Exclusionary School Discipline

In one of the largest settlements involving federal education law for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities, school officials in Palm Beach County, Fla., have agreed to boost the counseling and psychological services needed to help these students succeed in the classroom.

The school district has also agreed to establish a behavior improvement program that will impact all 168,342 students in the district.

The action settles a complaint brought by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and several civil rights groups in October 2008.

"This is a great victory for the students and parents of Palm Beach County," said David Utter, director of the SPLC Florida Youth Initiative. "These steps will help ensure our most vulnerable students are given the opportunity to succeed and are not pushed out of the classroom. We applaud the school leadership for their willingness to work with us and take the necessary steps to make our schools better for all students and our community."

The agreement will establish a district-wide behavior improvement program, known as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), which aims to significantly reduce suspensions and expulsions among all students.

Other settlement provisions aimed at keeping children in school and out of the justice system include:

Revising the district's code of conduct to provide more alternatives to suspensions and expulsions.

  • Hiring a consultant to assist with formulating strategies to significantly reduce the number of suspensions for students removed from class for a total of more than 10 school days
  • Reviewing and making recommendations for the appropriate amount of supports and services for students with disabilities who currently receive less than one hour of services per week
  • Providing increased math and reading remediation to children who are academically behind.
  • Ensuring disabled children who are 16 or older receive "transition services" (such as vocational education) that help them become productive adults.

Palm Beach County is the nation's 11th-largest school district and the state's fifth-largest school district, according to school system figures. The agreement is one of the largest settlements ever under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education and Improvement Act (IDEA).

In Palm Beach County, students with disabilities graduate at a rate of just 33 percent — compared to 67 percent for all students, according to data from the 2005-06 school year.

The SPLC was joined in filing the complaint by the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, the Southern Legal Counsel and the Florida State Conference of the NAACP.

It was filed on behalf of four students, from the 7th to 9th grades, who require special education services because of their emotional disturbances and mental disorders. These students had been subjected to repeated disciplinary measures that removed them from class.

One of the students was a 7th-grader eligible for services for emotional and behavioral disorders. When the student transferred from his elementary school to his middle school — which did not have the services needed — the school simply changed his paperwork to show that he didn't need those services. Without services to address the student's disorders, his behavior caused him to be removed from his regular classes for 33 school days during the 2007-2008 school year.

Such youths are most at risk of being locked up. Approximately 70 percent of youths in the state's juvenile justice system have at least one mental health disorder, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

In the 2006-2007 school year, Florida schools referred 23,000 students to the criminal justice system. Black males are disproportionately represented, comprising 33 percent of all referrals, even though they represent only 23 percent of Florida students.

By failing to meet the needs of such students, the school district helped feed Florida's "school-to-prison pipeline."

Barbara Briggs, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, and Ron Lospennato, director of the SPLC’s School-to-Prison Reform Project, served as lead counsel on the complaint. The Palm Beach County complaint is part of a campaign by the SPLC and allied organizations to protect the rights of vulnerable children whose needs are not being met by public schools and to reform the disciplinary policies that are driving youths from school and into detention. The SPLC has filed similar actions in Mississippi and Louisiana.