This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education announced this week that it has opened an investigation into a complaint that children with disabilities were bullied and discriminated against in District schools.
The complaint was filed on July 27, 2017, by the Education Law Center on behalf of one parent and three others “similarly situated.” The ELC seeks general relief in the form of expanded training for school staff to deal with such incidents and reforms to the District’s policies on transfers and harassment.
“These are sensible policy reforms that, if made, will improve education services to children,” said Alex Dutton, Independence Fellow at the Education Law Center. “We will work with the District to implement policy reforms we’re seeking in the complaint to ensure students have access to the education programs [to] which they are entitled.”
The complaint alleged “a systemic failure by the School District of Philadelphia to promptly and appropriately address pervasive and severe bullying of students with disabilities.”
"We look forward to working with the District to attempt to resolve the individual and systemic concerns raised in the Complaint to the benefit of students and their families, and hope to forge a swift and amicable path forward in the best interest of students," said Maura McInerney, ELC legal director, in a statement.
The 30-page complaint provided details of special education students being pushed down stairs, punched and kicked, and being called names such as “retard” and “idiot,” with bullies receiving little to no disciplinary action. Some students became so distraught about going to school that they “cried, shook, and begged” not to go. According to the complaint, parents looking to transfer their children were declined.
When students refused to go to school, the complaint said, the District took the families to Truancy Court. The complaint challenged the “discriminatory use of Truancy Court as an intervention for students with disabilities,” when the aversion to school was a result of being constantly tormented.
“These families had no business being in Truancy Court,” Dutton said in a statement. “We are grateful that someone will finally review the District’s practices with respect to its bullying investigation procedures and referrals to Truancy Court.”
In addition to policy reforms, the ELC is looking for compensatory education services and the expungement of truancy referrals for students who missed school as a result of bullying.
The attorneys are hoping that the federal investigation results in better training of school staff to disrupt the bullying of students with disabilities “in an appropriate, non-discriminatory manner that ensures their right to a free, appropriate public education.”
In response to the news, District spokesperson Lee Whack said, “In the public school system we take each and every instance of bullying and harassment very seriously.
“How students feel about coming to school directly impacts their ability to learn. We look forward to cooperating with OCR and supplying the requested information for review. We have been working hard to collaborate on these issues with families and advocate organizations. We want that to continue and will approach this process with a learning lens.”