Children with Disabilities Face Discrimination in New Orleans Schools
New Orleans – Students with disabilities are being denied access to the city’s public schools and are often pushed into schools unable to provide them with the special education services they deserve under federal law, according to a complaint lodged today by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other advocacy groups.
The complaint – filed with the Louisiana Department of Education on behalf of all special needs students in New Orleans public schools – outlines the department’s systemic failure to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to educational services and are protected from discrimination.
SPLC attorney Eden Heilman describes the barriers facing students with disabilities in New Orleans during a press conference.
The SPLC was joined in filing the complaint by the Community Justice section of the Loyola Law Clinic and the Southern Disability Law Center.
“All too often, students with disabilities are being denied the chance to take advantage of the many innovative educational programs and schools that have been developed in New Orleans since Katrina,” said Eden Heilman, the SPLC’s lead attorney in the case. “It’s a travesty – one that the Louisiana Department of Education has a duty to address.”
In the years following Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans public school system has been transformed, resulting in 47 charter schools operating in the city as independent school districts, 23 schools operated by the state under the Recovery School District (RSD) and 16 schools operated by the Orleans Parish School Board. The complaint describes how the state education department’s failure to fulfill its obligations has resulted in systemic violations documented in more than 30 of these schools, including 17 charter schools.
Students at these schools have been either completely denied enrollment as a result of their disability or forced to attend schools ill-equipped or entirely lacking the resources necessary to serve them. These are both clear violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law intended to ensure that all children with disabilities are provided a free and appropriate education.
“As the five-year anniversary of Katrina approaches, we need to take stock of where we are,” said Davida Finger, assistant clinical professor at Loyola University Law Clinic. “We’re rebuilding our schools but leaving behind our most vulnerable children. The Louisiana Department of Education has a legal and moral duty to intervene.”
The complaint triggers a formal administrative process during which the parties will attempt to negotiate a settlement. The plaintiffs are seeking, among other things, the appointment of a special master to ensure that New Orleans schools are properly serving children with special needs. If no agreement can be reached, the plaintiffs could then file suit in federal court.
Parents of two students named in the complaint described their family’s experiences dealing with this discrimination.
Leskisher Luckett, whose third-grade son was repeatedly locked in a school closet as a means of punishment, described the effect this discrimination has had on her son. “After being treated like a lost cause for years, Darren has come to believe that about himself. My son, my 9-year old son, is too young to give up on his education.”
Robyn Flanery’s daughter began suffering from profound emotional troubles upon entering the seventh grade. But, rather than receive any type of services to address this affliction, she was repeatedly punished for minor infractions until she was finally expelled from the school she had attended since kindergarten, leading to even greater emotional trauma.
“After years of being the ideal student, my daughter became seriously depressed almost overnight,” Flanery said. “But, instead of helping us and helping her, our family was abandoned by the school community we had been a part of for so long.”
Heilman said the complaint was an opportunity for the state to remove the well-documented barriers facing students with disabilities in New Orleans. “We hope to work collaboratively with the state to craft a solution that will ensure no child is denied access to the innovative educational reforms occurring throughout the city,” Heilman said.
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