NYLAG recently settled a lawsuit filed in 2015 on behalf of students with disabilities enrolled at Achievement First Crown Heights, a charter school in Brooklyn. The suit was brought against the school and the NYC Department of Education. The plaintiffs in the case are children who have been diagnosed with developmental delays, speech and language delays, and other disabilities that entitle them to educational services and supports and protection from discrimination.

The complaint alleged that Achievement First punished students with disabilities harshly and repeatedly for failing to comply with the school’s rigid code of conduct. The code forbids behaviors that children with autism, ADHD, or other diagnoses often cannot control, such as fidgeting or not maintaining eye contact with the teacher. Similar codes of conduct and approaches detrimental to special-needs students exist in many charter schools across the country.  The suit also alleged that Achievement First and the NYC Department of Education failed to provide students with legally-required educational services and supports, including counseling and speech/language therapy.

A New York Times report described the experience of one of the plaintiffs, a boy with autism, who had to wait years to get the appropriate special services he needed, and was disciplined for not looking in the direction his teacher instructed and for hiding under his desk.

“We are very pleased to have reached this agreement with Achievement First, which requires comprehensive, detailed changes in all 17 Achievement First schools in New York City to remedy the problems that led to the filing of the complaint,” said Danielle Tarantolo, Co-director of NYLAG’s Special Litigation Unit. “If successful, these reforms could serve as a model for schools with similar philosophies to help their students with disabilities meaningfully access education and avoid liability for similar lawsuits.

“There is much work to be done, however, to ensure that students can meaningfully access education free from discrimination, at Achievement First and many other charter schools. Families at these schools, as well as City and State regulators, must continue to scrutinize these schools’ special education practices until new, fairer systems are effectively implemented.  These children shouldn’t have to wait any longer.”

The remedial steps being taken by Achievement First include, among others outlined in the stipulation, establishing and implementing robust policies and trainings to ensure that children with disabilities are appropriately accommodated and not improperly punished for behavior related to their disabilities. They are required to do this with the guidance of a well-respected educational consultant, which is completing a thorough review of Achievement First schools and will provide binding recommendations.

The school will also adopt academic and behavioral criteria to identify students who may be in need of evaluation, consider referral of such students, and, where appropriate, refer such students for evaluation for special education services. Significantly, the settlement (in a separate stipulation) also requires Achievement First and the NYC Department of Education to undertake widespread programmatic changes to how they provide mandated related services like physical and occupational therapy.

“The provision of these services in New York City charter schools has historically been highly bureaucratic and ineffectual across the board,” said Tarantolo. “This settlement for the first time requires the responsible parties to work together so kids get the services they deserve under the law.”