Ten special needs students have filed a class action lawsuit in federal court alleging that New Orleans public schools are discriminating against them because of their disabilities.
In July, the plaintiffs initiated a complaint process against the Louisiana Department of Education. After mediation attempts failed, they sued in U.S. District Court on Tuesday, naming the Department of Education and state education officials as defendants.
The plaintiffs include a blind fourth-grader whose mother attended school with him every day because no staff member was assigned to guide him through the hallways and a fourth-grader with “emotional disturbance” who was allegedly kept in an isolation room and physically roughed up by school staff.
The schools named in the lawsuit include high-performing charter schools like New Orleans Charter Science and Math Academy and KIPP Believe College Prep as well as schools directly run by the Recovery School District.
The plaintiffs are asking that the schools comply with federal law guaranteeing an equal education to students with disabilities. They are not asking for financial compensation.
Since Hurricane Katrina, nearly three-quarters of city schools have become charters and neighborhood attendance zones were abolished. Parents can fill out a common application for all the schools in the Recovery School District, but enrollment decisions occur on the school level.
While the “school choice” model has benefited some students, critics say it has hurt those with disabilities because most charter schools are not equipped to serve the full range of special needs. Even district and state officials acknowledge that special education students sometimes fall through the cracks, with no central clearinghouse to ensure they are placed at a school that is capable of educating them.
Citywide, 9 percent of public school students, or about 4,500 children, have been diagnosed as special needs.
State Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek, who is one of the named defendants in the lawsuit, recently announced a new plan to better serve special education students.
A universal enrollment system, to be implemented as soon as the next school year, would help the district match special-needs students with a suitable school. Under the current system, parents have told of going from campus to campus, rejected at each turn because schools lacked the resources for a blind child, a deaf child or a child in a wheelchair.
In addition to creating a unit within the Department of Education that would make sure schools are complying with special education mandates, Pastorek will intensify efforts to train school leaders about their legal obligations to serve disabled students.
The parties are due in U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan’s courtroom on January 11 to argue whether the case can proceed as a class action representing all New Orleans special needs students.
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