Students with Disabilities: Another tale of two cities

Mayor Bill de Blasio was swept into office under a tale of two cities banner that dramatically highlighted how New York has become divided by class. But there is another kind of class division that the new mayor, if he is to live up to the progressive ideal that he has so eloquently championed, needs to ameliorate: the division in the city’s classrooms that have left students with disabilities (SWD) with inadequate educational resources to address their special needs.

Nothing underscores the seriousness of this situation than the tragic death of 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo. Avonte was autistic and non-verbal. His school was a District 75 school and shares a space with a “typical” school. On the day that Avonte walked out, a security guard asked Avonte where he was going. When he didn’t answer (because he’s non-verbal), the guard let Avonte go, assuming he was just like all of the other kids.

That Avonte was able to slip easily out of school that day underscores the seriousness of the problems that NYC schools face trying to properly educate, not only kids suffering from autism, but all of our special needs children: there are not enough resources, and the staff is not well trained to deal with the various needs of these children. For these children, and their parents who are under tremendous strain trying to make sure that their kids are treated, not only well, but according to federal and state law, it is truly a tale of two cities.

Under the previous administration, a major reform effort was undertaken that recognized and addressed that our schools were not living up to the legal SWD standards. But, as we all know so well, good intentions don’t always lead to good results-and this has proven true of the DOE’s effort to change the way we educate SWD.

As one principal pointed out anonymously at the dawn of the reform attempt two years ago: “We are talking about a major change…We’re talking about teachers needing to learn things like toilet training, feeding help, behavioral issues. We’re just not prepared.”

Things have not gotten appreciably better in the interim. Under reform, schools are supposed to serve children “in their zone” but many of the schools don’t have the wherewithal to do so. Things are made worse by the DOE’s performance standards that reward principals (“score” them) by how well they mainstream SWD.

This leads inevitably to a financially incentivized misplacement that prevents a special needs child from getting educated according to his or her specific needs. As one news report has pointed out, a Brooklyn school principal was fined $10,000 because she was making special-education service decisions based on financial rather than academic considerations. This is what happens when the funding formula rewards less restrictive settings.

On the other hand, we also find the reverse practice in place: ghettoizing SWD in a restrictive environment when they might be better off in a least restrictive school setting. This happens when local schools lack the resources and the will to take SWD and find it easier to ship them out.

How bad is the situation? It’s so bad that even getting SWD to school is problematic because of inadequate bus protocols and procedures. Some of the problems parents have with the city’s busing services include chronic lateness, overcrowding, long ride times, frequent route changes and staff transfers, and under-trained bus drivers and bus matrons.

I have been an advocate for autistic children and children with other special needs for years. I have seen firsthand how parents struggle to give their kids a better life. Now is the time to make sure that we insure the educational opportunity of the children who face life’s most difficult challenges.

That is why, following the suggestion of the NYCLU, we need for Mayor de Blasio to “… convene a task force with key city agencies, including the DOE and NYPD, advocates, mental health professionals, students and parents to implement thoughtful measures together that keep students safely in school and learning.”

This is the first step towards realizing the promise of making NYC one city, a place where the most vulnerable of our young, kids like Avonte Oquendo, are given the chance to lead successful and productive lives. Let’s get this started right away and show the rest of the country why our city is a beacon for progressive change.

- Brad Gerstman, Esq.
GerstmanSchwartz, LLP

Gerstman Schwartz is the premier New York special education law firm, with expertise in advocating, mediating and litigating on behalf of children with special education needs and their families. Our practice is highly regarded and our lawyers are recognized for their passion and excellence in representing the interests of our clients. We are committed to delivering exceptional, collaborative services and being the firm of choice for parents with special needs children.

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