This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The School District of Philadelphia has settled a federal lawsuit filed by local parents of students with disabilities who contended that their children were not receiving sufficient special education services during summer and winter vacations, which federal law requires public schools to provide.
As a result of the settlement, which was reached Feb. 3, District schools can no longer universally dictate the type, amount, and duration of Extended School Year services they will provide to the District’s 26,000 special education students. Instead, those decisions must be made in partnership with parents as part of a student’s Individualized Education Program.
The plaintiffs argued that the District used a one-size-fits-all program with a set amount of time given to each student, without taking into account that students with certain disabilities might require more time or different services than others.
In 2014, a group of parents — represented by the Public Interest Law Center and Covington & Burling LLP — filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the District’s practices violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The parents contended that the District did not meaningfully involve them in planning summer and school vacation services for their child and failed to provide individualized services outside of a school’s Extended School Year program, even after requests from parents.
Lee Awbrey, a staff attorney with the Public Interest Law Center who worked on the case, said parents were sent districtwide forms about the services with a set, pre-determined schedule.
“That left parents with the impression that their children could not get anything outside of that schedule,” Awbrey said. “They didn’t have much recourse. Some of the parents who sought an individualized program were being told — by misinformed members of the school community — that [parents] didn’t have the authority to have that flexibility.”
Kimberly Williams, one of the plaintiffs in the case, has a son with autism and a severe language disorder who attended Roxborough High at the time. Before joining the lawsuit, she received a form letter from the school, informing her that her son would receive the same programming as all other students.
“When the School District wouldn’t provide my son with the language therapy he needed, I had to pay out of my own pocket for additional services, even though my son has a right to individualized services,” Williams said. “I really hope the District will follow through with this settlement and provide my son with the education he deserves.”
Under the terms of the settlement, determinations about the type and duration of service will be made by a student’s education planning team after meeting with a parent or guardian to get input.
Parents are typically invited to be members of their child’s Individualized Education Program team, although some choose not to participate.
“The team itself should be making the [Extended School Year] recommendation,” Awbrey said, “but often in practice it just wasn’t even being addressed and discussed.”
The settlement also requires the District to provide specific training and resources to special education staff and school administrators to inform them of the full process for the services. The District will also offer parents training and notification that summer and winter break services should be discussed as part of their child’s education plan.
The settlement also requires the District to share data about these services with the Public Interest Law Center for three years so the center can monitor for compliance.
Awbrey said that one set of data the group will be monitoring is the “number of students who were recommended ESY services compared to the number of students who actually received those services.”
During those three years, the federal court will retain jurisdiction to enforce the agreement if necessary.
“The case itself has been marked as closed,” Awbrey said. “If we find from our monitoring that a school is not upholding their commitments, we can reopen the case."
Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center, said: “Each student with a disability has a legal right to an individualized and integrated public education, and we are now hopeful the School District will ensure that right is upheld when it comes to ESY services.”
The Public Interest Law Center staff says that parents of students with disabilities can contact them if they believe their child is not receiving sufficient services or if they have not been given the opportunity to participate in their child’s education plan process. Concerned parents can contact Awbrey at 267-546-1313 or email@example.com.