SPECIAL EDUCATION COMPLIANCE WITHIN ROCHESTER CITY SCHOOL DISTRICT
August 13, 2009
Author: Jonathan Feldman
This article is co-authored by Claire Galbraith, Empire Justice Center Summer Intern. 1
The quest to comply with both state and federal special education standards has been an ongoing challenge for the Rochester City School District. Prior to January of 2002, the District had been under court surveillance for twenty-one years due to its continued failure to provide adequate special education to students with disabilities. The initial class action suit against the Rochester City School District (RCSD) was filed in 1981 to enforce the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794. 2
As a result of that litigation, the RCSD made a number of promises to improve areas of special education, which prior to that point had been in serious violation of federal laws. These violations included problems with timely evaluations of students with disabilities, program requirements and placements, full parental involvement in the Committee on Special Education (CSE) process, education in the least restrictive environment, equal access by students with disabilities to the District’s special schools, programs and extra curricular activities, and lack of a self-monitoring system to monitor compliance.
The parties negotiated an initial Consent Decree, and in 1989, the Decree was modified to reflect changes in regulatory requirements by the State. Beginning in 1991, negotiations with the District commenced once again. These negotiations resulted in an Enforcement Order which was implemented in October of 1993. Under this Order, the District agreed to correct compliance in five major areas: timely evaluations/placement, internal compliance, monitoring and accountability, discipline of students with disabilities and equal access and inclusion (least restrictive learning environment). 3
As problems within the special education program continued to emerge, the School District made one last major attempt to show it was willing to comply with special education laws. This resulted in the most recent Consent Decree, which was implemented in 1997. Under this Decree, the District agreed to make even more improvements to ensure proper education for students with disabilities. These included a total of sixteen targets or “benchmarks” that the District promised to meet. These benchmarks incorporated lower drop-out rates, higher graduation rates, and better academic success on standardized tests for students with learning disabilities, as well as access to inclusion, reduction in home instruction placements, and proper and timely CSE evaluations. 4
In 2001, despite failing to comply with twelve of the sixteen benchmarks under the Consent Decree, the School District moved to have the case dismissed. 5 The District pointed to a Consent Decree clause that called for three years of court jurisdiction. The plaintiffs argued that this clause had to be read in conjunction with the “Disengagement Clause,” which stated explicitly that the case could not be dismissed until the District had met all sixteen benchmarks. Ultimately, the District Court declined to probe the meaning of the Disengagement Clause, and found simply that the period of judicial oversight had ended and would not be extended. 6 This decision was subsequently affirmed by the Second Circuit, in an unpublished opinion. 7
Flash Forward—Seven Years Later
Now, seven years later, there is still evidence that the District is failing to provide a free appropriate public education to students with disabilities. Parents’ complaints are numerous, and include: lack of adequate services within the District to provide the full continuum of supports, lack of post-graduation transition services for students with disabilities, a disorganized and inefficient administration, and failure to involve parents in the CSE process. Recent data confirms that serious problems are plaguing the special education program within RCSD. Statistics by the New York State Education Department indicate that the graduation rate is alarmingly low for students with disabilities in the Rochester City Schools. In the 2006-07 school year, the graduation rate was 20.5% for students with disabilities, failing to meet the state target of 37% or higher.8 And of those students who successfully graduated in 2006-07, only 13% received a Regents diploma. 9 The most recent data in 2008 revealed that only 20% of graduating students with disabilities received a Regents diploma. 10
Clearly, students with disabilities are not achieving the academic success which was promised under the 1997 Consent Decree. In addition to poor graduation rates and test scores, other statistics indicate that special education in the RCSD is failing to meet state and federal standards. The drop-out rate for students with disabilities in 2005-06 was 32.8%, and increased to 37.2% in the 2006-07 academic school year. 11
This statistic is disturbing when compared with the state target drop-out rate of 19% or lower. Similarly, the City has also failed to comply with the state’s target for long-term suspensions of 4% or lower for students with disabilities. 12
These statistics are a clear indication that the District has failed to achieve the goals set forth in the former Consent Decree. Based on this data, it is hardly surprising that students with disabilities are not achieving the same level of academic success as their general education counterparts.
The special education department within Rochester City Schools is in need of major improvements if students with disabilities are to succeed in the future. In addition to the 1997 benchmarks, there is also some evidence that there may be additional violations which were not addressed under the former agreement. The Empire Justice Center is currently gathering information to determine the major legal issues regarding the District’s special education program. If you know of parents within the District who are having special education problems, we would be happy to interview them – they should contact Jane Gabriele, Esq., or Jonathan Feldman, Esq. at the Rochester office of the Empire Justice Center.
1 Claire Galbraith is a summer legal intern in the Empire Justice Center’s Rochester office. She is a graduate of Emory University, and currently attends the University of Oregon Law School. She hopes to become a public interest attorney when she graduates from law school.
2 See J.G. by Mrs. G. v. Board of Educ. of Rochester City School Dist., 648 F.Supp. 1452 (W.D.N.Y. 1986).
3 See J.G. v. Board of Educ. of Rochester City School Dist., 193 F.Supp.2d 693, 696 (W.D.N.Y. 2002).
4 Id.at 696.
5 Id. at 707.
6 J.G., 193 F.Supp.2d at 700.
7 J.G. v. Rochester City School District, 53 Fed. Appx. 157 (2d Cir. 2002).
8 New York State Educ. Dept., Special Educ. Dist. Data Profile for Rochester City School Dist. for 2006-07, 2 (2008).
9 New York State Educ. Dept., The New York State Dist. Report Card Comprehensive Info. Report, Rochester City School District 2006-07, 7 (2008).
10 New York State Educ. Dept., The New York State Dist. Report Card Comprehensive Info. Report, Rochester City School District 2007-08, 7 (2009).
11 New York State Educ. Dept., Special Educ. Dist. Data Profile for Rochester City School Dist. for 2005-06 & 2006-07, 2 (2008).
12 Id. at 3.