A judge has agreed to a preliminary settlement to significantly improve and oversee the special education facilities for 18-21 year olds housed in New Jersey adult prisons.
The verdict stems from a 2017 class action lawsuit filed against the State Department of Justice and the Department of Education for failing to provide adequate and equal education for students with disabilities in adult detention centers, according to the complaint.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union-New Jersey, Disability Rights Advocates, and the pro bono wing of a private law firm, Proskauer Rose LLP. The lawsuit alleged that students incarcerated in adult prisons were entitled to special needs education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The state agencies have been charged with violating these laws.
Arc of New Jersey, a leading disability advocacy group in the state, was also a plaintiff in this case.
The Corrections Department has already made significant changes in the policies and methodology to provide special education to the students who need them since negotiations began between the two parties in 2018, said ACLU-NJ attorney Tess Borden.
Some of these changes include banning the use of worksheets as the primary teaching tool and providing four hours of face-to-face teaching for all students with a few exceptions. It also requires the Corrections Department to place students with disabilities in the correct school year and special education setting when they are taken into custody, including requesting records from students’ past school districts and state court documents.
The settlement obliges the Ministry of Education to monitor these services for a period of five years. It also creates a compensatory education program that provides education, vocational training, and re-entry programs of up to $ 8,000 per person per person to current inmates and those detained by the State Department of Justice between 2015 and 2021. So far, the court has identified 400 people who will benefit from the settlement.
Borden said the lawsuit was filed based on information received by plaintiffs about the “utter failure” of the law enforcement and education departments to provide or oversee the provision of special education services that the law does prescribes. “The reality was pretty grim prior to 2017 when the lawsuit was filed,” Borden said.
“Over these years,” she said, “the defendants, the Education and Correctional Departments, have really taken steps to commit to correcting these errors.”
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“Prior to this litigation, I did not receive adequate training, materials, or assistance from real teachers or tutors when it came to receiving special education services. These experiences made me feel like I was ready to quit and give up, “said 25-year-old Casey Z., one of the named plaintiffs in the case, in a statement he presented to the court.
“The ministry remains steadfast in its commitment to expand its offerings that support holistic rehabilitation for all,” said State Department of Justice spokeswoman Liz Velez in a statement accompanying the ruling. In addition to working with the Department of Education to use school records to identify students eligible for special needs education, the department has also hired a school psychologist to help assess students, she said. A trauma-informed education program was also recently piloted to help educators understand the effects of trauma on incarcerated students and identify psychological triggers for them.
In May 2017, according to the ACLU website, the court appointed a neutral expert to assess how the two state agencies deal with special education services in state prisons. The Department of Corrections began implementing changes in the following years when negotiations between the two groups began, Borden said.
Rebecca Rodgers, executive attorney for Disability Rights Advocates and co-attorney in the lawsuit, said special education was not always offered in state prisons prior to the lawsuit. Disabled students should receive an individual assessment of their special educational needs, but prisons did not always do so and often used cookie cutter programs. Lessons in class are not common, she said. Worksheets were overused and teachers were not always qualified. The prisons also did not take into account the students’ disabilities in disciplining.
Borden from the ACLU praised the ruling as “substantial” because it not only included obligations of government agencies to provide and monitor special education services, but also incorporated procedural elements, she said, referring to the “robust” five-year monitoring term.
In addition to providing compensation in the form of educational programs, the lawsuit awards the three named plaintiffs, Adam, Brian, and Casey, each with $ 5,000 as an incentive to work and participate in the lawsuit, Borden said. These men were incarcerated in New Jersey prisons when the lawsuit was filed. Their last names were withheld to protect their identity.
Disability attorney attorney Rodgers said Adam received little special education for the more than 150 days he was in solitary confinement.
She said the second plaintiff, Brian, had never been tested for eligibility for special education when he was jailed. He also spent time in solitary confinement.
“At first he did not receive special training in solitary confinement, but eventually the correctional facility gave him worksheets to fill out while he was detained in the middle of the unit,” she said.
Casey, the third plaintiff, had been entitled to services for much of his life but did not receive any in prison. All three were arrested between the ages of 18 and 19, she said.
Individuals who feel eligible for the settlement settlement have until January 2024 to fill out a form and submit the claim, which is approved by a court-appointed monitor, Rodgers said.
The ruling will serve as a national model, Rodgers said. It is not known whether other correctional departments in other federal states offer similar programs.
The verdict now enters a six-month procedural period during which the public can object before a judge decides in January to finalize it.
The ACLU has set up a dedicated email address ([email protected]) and telephone number (973-854-1700) for previously detained persons or their relatives to answer any questions or concerns about the settlement.
Mary Ann Koruth covers the training for NorthJersey.com. For full access to the latest news about New Jersey schools and how it affects your children, subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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