Hundreds of special education students in Jefferson Parish who were systematically denied the help due them under federal law are now getting desperately needed services under a new action plan approved by the Louisiana Department of Education.
The Center filed a class action administrative complaint in February 2005 after its investigation found that the Jefferson Parish school system failed to educate the mostly poor, primarily African American students diagnosed with an emotional disturbance -- children at the greatest risk of dropping out of school and becoming part of the criminal justice system.
The school system routinely suspended or expelled children for minor offenses related to their disabilities and segregated special education students in self-contained classrooms or trailers, a violation of federal regulations. Jefferson Parish classified more than 800 students as emotionally disturbed.
"The state investigated our allegations and was appalled at what it found," said Courtney Bowie, a Center attorney who specializes in special education issues
Also working on the case are Jim Comstock-Galagan of the Southern Disability Law Center and Hector Linares, the Southern Poverty Law Center education fellow at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana.
The state agreed to settle the case in August 2005, granting all of the relief that Center lawyers demanded and more.
The settlement required the appointment of a special master to oversee special education services given to emotionally disturbed students in Jefferson Parish public schools. It also required major systemic changes, including provision of psychological services and counseling; improvement of academic progress at all grade levels; elimination of harsh, illegal disciplinary practices; less restrictive environments; and significant expansion of access to vocational training.
Appointed in December, the special master -- D. Joe Olmi, a professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg -- will monitor compliance of Jefferson Parish's implementation of the corrective action plan for two years.
The Center's special education legal team is now addressing similar special education problems in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system -- the largest in the state since Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of New Orleans students.
On May 10, the Center filed a class action administrative complaint with the Louisiana Department of Education that outlines an array of deficiencies in the East Baton Rouge system.