Tuesday, November 5, 2013

OCR Finds Special Education Discrimination in New York School District, But Ripple Effects Unlikely

The Office for Civil Rights has reached a settlement agreement with the Schenectady City School District in regard to its special education program.  OCR found that the district was enrolling a disproportionate number of black and Latino students enrolled in special education.  For instance, 49 percent of the students classified as emotionally disturbed were African American, while African Americans were only 35 percent of the overall student population. Twenty-three percent of students classified as learning disabled were Latino, while Latinos were only 16 percent of the overall student population.

OCR found that the disparity stemmed from the lack of standardized criteria for referring students to special education.   For instance, the district did not even have Spanish language materials with which to evaluate English Language Learners, which is specifically required by federal law.  OCR also found that the approach to special education identification differed from teacher to teacher and school to school.  One of the more obvious problems was in regard to racially diverse classrooms, where it was often the case that teachers only referred minority students for special education.  Finally, the district did not have monitoring system in place to gauge whether its special education system was working appropriately.

The settlement agreement--which OCR credited the district for actively collaborating on--calls for the district to hire an outside expert, to develop a uniform screening process, to create building level teams that manage the process, to offer continuing professional development, and to review its existing special education evaluations.  The full agreement is available here.

Those familiar with special education disparities might wonder why this district drew OCR’s attention.  In comparison to many other districts, the disparities are not that high.  The question then is, if this district is in violation, are hundreds or thousands of others as well?  Will OCR take action against them?  The answer is probably not.  The disparities do not appear to be the legal primary trigger here.  Rather, the district’s failure to have basic procedures in place made this an easy case for OCR.  The lack of procedures, of course, helps create the disparity and, thus, gives OCR a firm ground upon which to act.  But when a district has the correct procedures in place, making the case for a violation becomes more difficult.  Disparities alone rarely amount to a violation.  In short, big win for special education students in Schenectady, but this one is unlikely to have ripple effects.


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