School District Settles Special Education Lawsuit
The Hastings-on-Hudson school district in New York recently settled a federal lawsuit brought against it in June 2014 by a group of parents of special needs students. According to The Rivertowns Enterprise July 8, 2016 newspaper, the School Board approved the settlement at its June 21, 2016 meeting. In the lawsuit, parents had complained that there was a pattern in the District of inaccurate classifications that were based solely on a desire to save the district money. The Complaint sought an investigation into the District's special education policies and whether the superintendent and special education director "committed misconduct and should be removed from service."
Among the accusations was that the Special Education Department did not properly classify the children's disabilities, would not consider opinions of third party professionals engaged by parents, denied requested services, changed services without advance notice, and refused to re-evaluate the decisions upon parental request. The lawsuit also accused the special education director of "creat[ing] ... an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the Hastings special education system along with ... conflict with parents, independent specialists and district staff that ... goes substantially beyond unpleasantness or even rudeness and constitutes serious misconduct."
Speaking with parents of Special Needs children in the District who were not involved in the lawsuit, I learned of some egregious examples of misconduct, some of which could have resulted in serious physical and emotional harm to students. Intimidation was rife in the District with teachers telling parents one thing in private and then being afraid to speak up at CSE meetings. In one incident, the parents and Director of Special Education were disputing whether a child needed an out-of-district placement due to significant emotional issues. While the Director ordered additional testing to help support her claim, the parents noticed significant deterioration in their daughter's emotional well-being, which they brought to her teacher's attention. It wasn't until three weeks after voicing their concerns that the parents were informed, at a CSE meeting, that the child had been having visual and tactile hallucinations in school. It was only disclosed at that point because the District could no longer argue their daughter was safe in the school, let alone that it was an appropriate educational setting. This was perhaps the most vivid example of the effect this caustic and intimidating environment had on children.
The settlement provides for more transparency about the department's activities. The Special Education Director, who was in charge from 2007 to 2015, has since left the district. A new Director of Special Education, who recently took her place, is generally viewed very favorably. The settlement also mandates the District, within 60 days, to hire and pay for an independent consultant from the Urban Special Education Leadership Collaborative to evaluate the department's operations and make recommendations. Although the recommendations would not be binding, the District would be required to present them all at a public meeting and submit them for public comment.
The district will also be required to compile reports at the end of each school year, specifying: the number of special education classifications that have been requested, granted, or denied; the legal complaints and complaints to the state; and information on how many special education students are the subject of disciplinary action, as compared to non-classified students.
It is important to note that parents had been complaining about the former Director of Special Education for years. Complaints to the Board of Education and Superintendent went nowhere. Furthermore, the Director obtained Tenure during this time. Even against all these odds, the Parents (and ultimately the kids) were able to prevail.