08/22/2007

SPLC Settlement Protects Neglected Students in Mississippi County

A Mississippi school district where students with disabilities sometimes fell years behind in their education and suffered abusive punishment from teachers will make changes to protect these students under a settlement reached with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

"This is a first-of-its kind settlement for Mississippi," said Courtney Bowie, an attorney with the SPLC's Mississippi Youth Justice Project (MYJP). "This will ensure these students are not abandoned by the school system, but receive the services they so desperately need."

These services are vitally important because special education students are at great risk of behavioral problems that can lead to them being pushed out of school and into the juvenile justice system – a path known as the "school-to-prison pipeline."

"They're incredibly vulnerable to being sent to youth court," Bowie said.

The Holmes County School District has agreed to a plan that will help ensure students with disabilities are identified and given the educational services required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. The district will also hire a consultant to oversee this plan to improve its special education services.

The settlement was reached last week after SPLC attorneys filed a class action administrative complaint in May accusing the district of systematically neglecting and abusing students with disabilities.

The complaint was filed on behalf of 10 students. It cited the case of Lavonta Anderson. On his first day of kindergarten, Anderson was asked if he knew his address. When he said that he did not, his teacher pulled out a paddle and hit him repeatedly.

Anderson was paddled again the following day, when he told his teacher that he did not know his address. Another paddling came the day after that, and it continued each day for months until he finally got the courage to tell his mother.

The complaint says Anderson is in the 8th grade but reads at a 3rd-grade level. He has a phobia of school and is not given any additional support in the classroom.

According to the complaint, at least one teacher called the police and threatened to kill a student because the teacher believed that the student, identified as W.J. in the complaint, had vandalized her automobile. School documents show that W.J., who had a seizure disorder, was accused of having outbursts and whipped repeatedly by his special education teacher. Despite requests from his parents that his teacher not use corporal punishment, the whippings continued.

Although the school district implemented an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for him, W.J. has not demonstrated any academic progress. The complaint contends that the district has repeatedly failed to develop plans that benefit the students.

Under the agreement, the school district agreed that:

  • School personnel will be trained in the requirements of special education law.
  • Illegal disciplinary policies and practices will end. New disciplinary policies will be developed.
  • There will be a significant increase in the amount, duration and quality of social work, counseling and school psychological services.
  • Intensive reading and math remediation programs will be made available for students with disabilities.
  • Parents will have more of a role in the planning their child's education.
  • Students with disabilities will have more access to the general education classroom. This includes the placement of a certified special education teacher in regular classrooms.
  • Older students facing graduation will have more access to vocational training services.
  • The students named in this complaint and the interested parties will have access to an existing Special Education Advisory Panel.
  • A Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports program (PBIS) will be implemented school-wide in every Holmes County school. This program emphasizes the reinforcement of positive social behaviors rather than simply punishing bad behaviors.
  • PBIS has been proven to reduce behavior problems and referrals to the criminal justice system. Bowie noted that PBIS will have a positive impact on all Holmes County students. 

"It helps every student in this district," she said.

In the fall of 2003, the SPLC entered into a consent decree with the Mississippi Department of Education in Mattie T. et al. v. Johnson. The original suit challenged Mississippi's failure to ensure that local school districts identified, evaluated and provided appropriate educational services to students with disabilities. 

The decree, which lasts until 2011, requires the state to improve its identification of students who have disabilities and ensure that they are educated with their peers to the extent that it is possible. The state is also required to eliminate discriminatory assessment of students with disabilities and gifted students.

In many school districts, black children are identified as mentally retarded at a far greater rate than white children, while white children are generally identified as gifted at a far greater rate than their black peers. 

This recent complaint against Holmes County contended that despite the Mattie T. decree, the district was not appropriately identifying children with disabilities. On average, 12 percent of a school district's population is disabled in Mississippi. In Holmes County that number is 8 percent.

The SPLC has filed similar complaints in Louisiana, where it has reached settlements to ensure special education services for students in the Jefferson Parish School System and the East Baton Rouge School System. Those settlements affect as many as 1,300 students. Another complaint in the Caddo Parish School System is pending.