SPLC sues Mississippi DOE for failing to protect students with disabilities

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal lawsuit today against the Mississippi Department of Education for failing to ensure that students with disabilities in the Jackson Public School District receive the education and services required by federal law.

The class action lawsuit describes how the state department of education has failed to enforce its own December 2010 decision, which found the district had violated major components of federal special education law. The department’s decision – the result of a complaint filed by the SPLC – required the district to develop and execute a plan to correct these violations within 12 months. By the department’s own records, the Jackson Public School District has failed to correct a single violation after almost two years.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Jackson public school students with disabilities, describes how the district continues to violate federal law by denying these students access to critical educational services. The district also has violated the law by removing these students from classrooms, often as punishment for behavior related to their disabilities. The Mississippi Department of Education is bound by state and federal law to bring Jackson public schools into compliance.

“For years, the Jackson Public School District has refused to provide students with disabilities the services they deserve under federal law,” said Vanessa Carroll, senior staff attorney for the SPLC. “Even worse, the Mississippi Department of Education has failed to fulfill its legal duty to hold Jackson public schools accountable for these violations.”

The lawsuit describes how the district’s plan did not adequately address its ongoing violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law designed to protect the educational rights of students with disabilities. It also describes how the district’s students with disabilities often languish three or four grades behind their peers. The graduation rate for students with disabilities in the Jackson Public School District is only 9.1 percent.

E.H., a plaintiff and rising sophomore with a learning disability, didn’t receive instruction tailored to his needs. Over a three-year period, his math skills have regressed. His reading skills have increased by only one grade level during this period.

The lawsuit also outlines how the Jackson Public School District failed to even acknowledge the validity of the department’s finding that the district violated federal law. The district has even refused to follow corrective actions recommended by the Mississippi Department of Education.

The Southern Disability Law Center and Disability Rights Mississippi are also serving as co-counsel on the case.