It’s hard to look at the School District of Philadelphia’s autism-support program and not see a flawed system. There are about 180 different autism-support classrooms—separated into K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12 classes, as per state laws that require maximum age ranges—scattered among the District’s nearly 300 schools. Few schools have the full range of autism-support services, so a K-5 elementary school, for example, might have a K-2 but not a 3-5 AS classroom. Over the years, this has meant that most children with autism—who by virtue of their disability endure intellectual and emotional distress with even minor changes to their environment and schedule—must transfer to a different school every few grades, sometimes long bus rides from home.
But is a recently filed federal class-action lawsuit that contends the system discriminates against and violates the rights of the approximately 3,000 autistic students enrolled in the District also flawed?
The suit was brought against the District three weeks ago by the parents of four autistic students at Richmond Elementary School in Port Richmond who want to keep their kids at the school, where they’re comfortable and happy—even though they’ve aged out of the K-2 AS classroom (and the school doesn’t have a 3-5 AS classroom). More broadly, though, the lawsuit is demanding that the District create a plan that provides AS classes for all grade levels of a school that already has one such classroom.
To that end, the lawsuit has termed the existing system an “Automatic Autism Transfer Policy,” which it claims to be discriminatory. What’s tricky is that the word “policy” suggests intent—that the District purposely designed and maintained such a system to force autistic kids to transfer to different schools.
In the wake of the suit, the District has issued a statement denying the existence of any Automatic Autism Transfer Policy, and says there’s no evidence to suggest the current autism-support system has ever been anything more than a matter of logistics. Maria Monras-Sender, executive director of the district’s Office of Specialized Instructional Service, says that while stability and classroom continuity for autistic students remains a goal, “At the hour of need, you have to open up [AS classrooms] where you have space to do so. We also have to make sure our programs are very well-distributed so nobody has to travel too far to them.”
Trying to elevate the current system to a “policy,” declaring that policy illegal and demanding it be eliminated—in other words, not allowing the District to transfer students out of their current building, even if they age out of the AS classroom they’re currently in—is a shaky and risky legal strategy. If successful, though, it would compel the District to do what it probably should have done from the beginning: Organize its AS classrooms so schools have a full grade range of autism support, ensuring that if an autistic student starts at one school, the student can also finish there.
Of course, such a major overhaul would be time-consuming, complex and costly. The District couldn’t simply move an existing 3-5 classroom and all of its students from one building to another and add a bunch of new students, for example, because state law limits AS classroom enrollment to eight. A number of new AS classrooms would have to be created and staffed to provide for all students staying in the same building past the grade limits of their current AS program. But that would be the District’s problem to solve.
The lawsuit appears to be on sturdier ground when it claims that the school transfers occur “with little or no parental notice or involvement, without required consideration of children’s individualized circumstances, and in direct violation of the mandated individual planning process of the IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act].”
That claim is backed by evidence derived from due process hearings involving two of the Richmond students conducted between December 2010 and February 2011, in which a state-appointed IDEA hearing officer determined that “the District violated the parents’ right to participation by reassigning the student to a different school building without sending IDEA-compliant prior written notice,” and that “the building assignment is not made by a student’s IEP [Individualized Education Program] and parents are not involved in the process,” as mandated by IDEA. (Both students won IDEA-mandated “stay-put” protection to keep them at Richmond for third grade, pending the result of the legal proceedings.)
Sonja Kerr, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia who is representing the four families, says those findings clearly demonstrate discrimination. “We wouldn’t do this to kids who don’t have disabilities. We wouldn’t go, ‘Hey, we’re going to move you and we’re not going to talk to your parents about it.”
Still, the IDEA hearing officer determined that while parents need to be involved in the decision and must be officially notified in writing of proposed building reassignments, precedents set by other court cases dictate that the District has the final say as to where the student will be placed. “The school district is justified in assigning the student to the building in which he or she will be appropriately educated,” the hearing officer wrote.
Whether a judge will order a complete overhaul of the system or merely force the District to comply fully with IDEA-mandated parental-involvement procedures remains to be seen. Meanwhile, one autism-support teacher at a school in Northeast Philadelphia, who requested anonymity, sees flaws on both sides of this fight. “The School District doesn’t care about the individual student,” she says. “I think they just dump [students] into whatever building they can fit them in according to the numbers, and they don’t consider their individual needs or what the parents want. So normally I would be the first person with a torch and a pitchfork chasing after the School District. But in this case, what they’re doing isn’t discriminatory, and it’s not a policy. It’s just the result of circumstance: ‘This is where we have AS classrooms, we don’t have them everywhere, this is the reality of it, so they need to go here and here.’”
But Sharon Vargas, one of the four Richmond parents behind the lawsuit, insists she won’t sit idly by while her autistic son is traumatized by as big and sudden a change in his life as a school transfer.
“My son knows something’s going on,” says Vargas. “He says to me, ‘I’m not gonna see my friends no more and I’m not gonna see my teacher.’ He’s upset, he’s angry, so I get angry. He says, ‘I don’t know what to do, Mom.’ I said, ‘You don’t have to do nothing because Mommy’s trying to fix this.’”