10/01/2008

SPLC, Civil Rights Groups File Complaints to End Neglect of Florida Students with Learning Disabilities

The Southern Poverty Law Center and an alliance of civil rights groups have filed complaints against two of Florida's largest school districts, where students with disabilities endure a culture of neglect and harsh discipline that robs them of an education and pushes them along a path to incarceration.

The class action administrative complaints against the Hillsborough County and Palm Beach County school districts contend the school districts are failing to provide the counseling, social work and psychological services required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA). The complaints were filed with the Florida Department of Education on Oct. 1.

"These school districts are violating the civil rights of their most vulnerable students — those with disabilities," said David Utter, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center's Florida Initiatives. "Rather than providing these students with the educational services they need and are entitled to under federal law, they are pushing them out of school."

The goal of the complaints is to bring the districts into compliance with federal special education law and end practices that exclude or isolate children with disabilities. Palm Beach County is the fifth largest school district in Florida and the 11th largest in the United States. Hillsborough County is also among the 10 largest school districts in the nation.

The complaints are part of a campaign by the SPLC and allied organizations to protect the rights of children who are being neglected by Florida's public schools and to reform the disciplinary policies that are driving youths from school and into detention. The Florida Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities, the NAACP, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the Southern Legal Counsel are part of this alliance.

By failing to meet the needs of such students, these school districts help feed Florida's "school-to-prison pipeline" — the term given to the plight of students pushed out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system. 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.

Across Florida, schools sent 23,000 students to the criminal justice system in 2006-2007. Black males are disproportionately represented, comprising 33 percent of all referrals even though they make up only 23 percent of Florida students.

Information provided as part of discovery in a 1997 lawsuit showed more than 80 percent of students with disabilities referred by Palm Beach County Schools to the juvenile justice system were black males.

"Over-inclusion and under-inclusion each have race implications, as do zero-tolerance practices that lead to racially disparate suspensions and expulsions — and involvement in the juvenile justice system — for black and Latino students with disabilities," said Florida State Conference NAACP President Adora Nweze, a retired special education administrator. "Children of color were already being ground down by this flawed system in Palm Beach County schools. Now it appears the entire system has collapsed on top of them."

Palm Beach Students Years Behind

The Palm Beach complaint describes a school system where a significant portion of elementary students with emotional and behavioral disabilities with average intelligence are typically performing years behind their grade level by the time they reach middle school.

The complaint 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. They have been subjected to repeated disciplinary measures that remove them from class.

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

One of the four Palm Beach students is 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 this student's disorders, his behavior caused him to be removed from his regular classes for 33 school days during the 2007-2008 school year.

Hillsborough Leads State in Referrals

The Hillsborough complaint was filed on behalf of six students, from the 6th to 12th grades, who require special education services because of their emotional disturbances and mental disorders. They too have been subjected to repeated disciplinary measures that remove them from class.

Children with disabilities graduate from Hillsborough schools at a rate of just 39 percent — compared to 75 percent for all students, according to the latest data, from the 2005-06 school year.

Hillsborough County also leads the state in the number of students referred to the juvenile justice system — 1,881 in 2006-2007, representing 16 percent of all such referrals in the state. Most of these are for minor offenses.

One of the six Hillsborough students in the complaint is a 10th-grader with disabilities and behavioral problems who functions at a 1st-grade grade level in math and reading. Although this student was determined to be eligible for special education services in 1998, it was eight years before the school district included any social work, psychological or counseling services as part of her education.

Once anger management counseling was provided to this student, the school never increased the counseling despite repeated suspensions, behavioral incidents and even an arrest during a span of more than two years.

The SPLC's School-to-Prison Reform Project has filed similar actions against school districts in Mississippi and Louisiana seeking reforms to stop the flow of students with disabilities into the juvenile justice system. Those complaints have resulted in significant reforms.