- Students with disabilities said the district’s practices excluded them by banning them from school.
- The federal investigation does not punish the district or make it liable.
- The district must call in an external advisor under the steps envisaged in the comparison.
The US Department of Justice reached an agreement with the Volusia County School District after finding that the district’s “systemic and discriminatory practices” punish students with disabilities for behaviors that students could not control.
Now the Volusia schools have three years to change – which is already underway, according to district officials.
The state investigation into the county’s practices began in 2017 when an attorney filed a complaint on behalf of 11 students with disabilities, nine of whom were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
The history:VCS officials have been aware of the Justice Department’s investigation into alleged discrimination since 2018
READ THE RESEARCH:Volusia the ‘no man’s land’ of autism education
PART 2:Volusia officials, families turn to Baker Acts instead of helping students with autism
The DOJ found the students’ claims to be true. The district relied on overly punitive disciplinary tactics and law enforcement to address behaviors that were known or intended to be known manifestations of the students’ disabilities. The county also “routinely tried to expel these students by removing them” by asking parents to pick children up from school or leave them at home, by suspending the children, or by involuntarily detaining children in hospitals under the Baker Act .
In other words, the practices in some schools in the district created a system that scared parents into sending their children to school so that they would not be unjustly punished for behavior the school was supposed to help them.
“Graduation became a secondary topic,” says Carl Tews, whose son has autism and is now in fourth grade. He was one of the students in the complaint. “It was, ‘How do you make sure Jackson doesn’t go to jail just for going to school?’ And you don’t want this to be the cornerstone of public education for autistic students. “
The settlement reached after four years of investigation is not punitive and does not constitute an admission of liability or misconduct by the district. It gives the district three years to implement new policies and practices, recruit new supervisory staff, and new systems for data reporting and tracking, as well as controls and balance sheets. During this time, the Volusia County Schools are subject to federal supervision.
“Students should never be denied education because of a disability, and we will not give in until the full measure of rights under the (Americans with Disabilities Act) is a reality,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department for civil rights of the ministry in a press release by the DOJ. “The department is committed to enforcing the law to ensure schools meet the needs of all of their students and respect the rights.”
In a statement to The News-Journal by email, district spokeswoman Kelly Schulz said that the allegations treated in comparison decrease before 2017.
“The concerns … were strongly addressed in the district’s strategic plan and will be compounded in the future by the tracking and reporting requirements of the agreement,” Schulz said. “We believe that the district’s earlier changes to the Student Code of Conduct and the improvements required by the agreement will benefit all students as we work to identify student challenges and disabilities earlier and offer positive interventions early on.”
Autism is a developmental disorder that affects social skills, communication, and behavior. It has become more and more common in the United States. There were 1,233 students with Autism Spectrum Disorder in Volusia County last school year. Ten years ago there were 387.
In most cases, these students are placed in traditional classrooms and receive support to mitigate disability-related behavior. They can be given breaks to cope with overstimulation or assistants to help them understand instructions about tasks.
In 2019, The News-Journal interviewed parents, teachers, lawyers, district officials and other experts about the system for educating students with autism in the Volusia district. The newspaper’s findings were twofold and are supported by the conclusions of the DOJ’s investigation.
The newspaper found that the number of students with autism in Volusia County more than tripled, staffing levels, funding and generalist teacher training have stagnated. It also found that the number of children with autism in Volusia County who are Baker Acted has increased 500% in four years, although experts say it will almost never help this child overcome their behavior, which It showed.
The News-Journal spoke to families whose children were dragged in police cars and were involuntarily hospitalized for behavior related to their disability; families who have taken their children out of the public school system for fear of retaliation for their behavior; and to families who have had to bring in professional attorneys or solicitors to help them get the support services they need to go to school for their children.
“The truth is these children have special needs. They have extraordinary needs. We should balance their skills with resources to make sure everyone is provided an education,” Tews said.
“This is really the heart of what public education is supposed to be,” he continued, “and I think the DOJ results say,” Yes, we will make sure you do. “
What the settlement says
The 19-page settlement agreement with the DOJ requires the district to take a number of steps to correct and prevent discrimination against students with disabilities.
In part, it should generally prohibit the informal or undocumented removal of students with disabilities from the classroom, such as The district must update its policies and procedures to include options for positive interventions prior to disciplinary action and clear steps that limit the administrator’s discretion. The district must also provide clear guidelines on when the school can call on law enforcement agencies.
Read it here:Settlement Agreement between the United States and the Volusia County School District
Much of the comparison involves the establishment of systems to record and track all dismissals of students with disabilities. Schools must document and review each removal and document any positive corrective action they have taken before resorting to disciplinary action. Families have the opportunity to appeal against disciplinary action. And every involvement of law enforcement agencies needs to be documented and stored in a central database – something that didn’t exist before.
The settlement also requires that all law enforcement officials and school guards who work with students with disabilities, as well as all staff and contractors who come into contact with students with autism spectrum disorder, receive training on the rights of students with disabilities as well as a Instruction in the characteristics and needs of students will give these students and behavior management strategies. The training must be carried out personally. Such training has not previously been required.
The district must hire an outside advisor to assess and monitor disciplinary practices by meeting with each principal twice a year, and an ADA compliance officer to ensure the settlement is upheld. And the district will submit regular reports to the federal government that document progress and compliance with the regulation.
The district is also required to inform the parents and guardians of all students about the settlement and notify where it can be accessed. She has two weeks from August 2nd for this.
Read the full comparison on the DOJ’s website.
Reporter Nikki Ross contributed to this report.