What this settlement in a 25 year old case means for Ohio students with disabilities
Students with disabilities in Ohio’s 11 large urban districts have won a legal victory.
Lawyers in a 25 year old class action lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Ohio against the Ohio Department of Education reached a settlement this week, mandating the latter develop a plan within the year to boost academic results, such as test scores, graduation rates, student literacy, and inclusion. An increased focus on literacy and language could mean support from Regional Literacy Specialists. There would also be improved initiatives for post-secondary transition.
The settlement could affect more than 250,000 students with disabilities.
The agreement is awaiting federal court approval.
The 11 districts cited in the lawsuit currently have the worst scores for students with disabilities and the highest rates of segregation in the state, The Columbus Dispatch reported.
In 2016, Tom Hehir, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and former director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, wrote a report aimed at finding out whether Ohio students in these higher poverty districts were receiving free and appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Among other things, Hehir found that placing students with disabilities in segregated settings for some or all of the school day was a contributing factor in their lower performances on standardized tests.
Hehir added that segregation in these districts exceeded what he had seen in other districts across the country.
“These high rates of segregated placement in these districts are striking and disturbing,” Hehir wrote.
Ira Burnim, director of the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, whose organization partnered with Disability Rights Ohio on the case, said the settlement is a huge win for students with disabilities.
“I think that having a settlement in a class action lawsuit of this scale is groundbreaking,” he said. “But I think in particular [what is groundbreaking] is the focus on achievement, the focus on inclusion, which is very related to related to achievement in Ohio, and the focus on the state making good on this target to commitment to people living in urban districts.”
Burnim added, “The litigation reveals the more segregated the school district was, the lower students did on proficiency tests.”
Students with disabilities are disproportionately disciplined, which costs them time that could be spent learning in the classroom. When asked what the settlement will do to address those higher rates of discipline, Burnim said staff needed training and support to make inclusion work, something the settlement includes in its Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports intervention (PBIS) policy, an alternative to more punitive interventions such as suspension.
“I think that there is a clear understanding that for kids whose classification is [Serious Emotional Disturbance] and who have issues with behavior in school, that there is work to be done and a provision in agreement talks about school climate and positive behavior support and development for teachers and leadership,” Burnim said.
The group first filed the lawsuit in 1993 but it was set aside while the DeRolph v. State case, a landmark education funding case, worked its way through the court system. The case was revived after the court relinquished jurisdiction over the DeRolph case in 2012.
The Disability Rights Ohio lawsuit alleged that the state was violating IDEA. Under the law, students with disabilities have the right to be educated in the “least restrictive environment” but in some large high-poverty districts, students were learning in separate classrooms for most of their school day. Disability Rights Ohio’s analysis showed only 38.5 percent of students with disabilities in those 11 districts learned in integrated settings compared to 65.1 percent in other districts.
Across the country, students served by IDEA make up 13 percent of total public school enrollment. Thirty-four percent of students have a specific learning disability, 20 percent have a speech and language impairment, and 14 percent have another health impairment, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
In March of last year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of a quality education for students with disabilities. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in his decision that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”