Statement of Eden Heilman, Lead Counsel
Over 4,500 New Orleans public school students with disabilities have been denied access to educational opportunities, pushed out of school and discriminated against because of their disabilities. This morning, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint against the Louisiana Department of Education to enforce these students’ rights under federal law.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires the Louisiana State Department of Education to ensure that public school students with disabilities receive equal access to education services. This obligation applies to both charter and publicly operated schools. The state of Louisiana has entirely failed to ensure compliance with this law, and as a result, the life chances of thousands of New Orleans children have been cut short. Let me share with you some of the heartbreaking situations our clients face as a result of these failures:
• A 7-year-old child in a wheelchair was turned away from six different charter schools because the schools were either unable to serve students with significant learning needs or the school was inaccessible for his wheelchair.
• A 9-year-old child with hyperactivity was dragged, restrained and locked in a room because the school lacked appropriate training to address his special needs.
After Hurricane Katrina, the state of Louisiana rebuilt New Orleans public schools, promising educational excellence for all students. But this promise remains unfulfilled for New Orleans’ students with disabilities. New Orleans students with disabilities have waited almost five years to reap the benefits of educational reform—languishing in schools that cannot meet their needs or pushed out of school altogether. This complaint highlights the tragic consequences of a public education system that ignores the legal needs of its m0st vulnerable students. But the complaint also presents an opportunity to make real – once and for all – the promise of equal educational access for all New Orleans students.
We hope Louisiana officials will seize this opportunity and collaborate with us to ensure compliance with federal law.