ELC Applauds U.S. DOJ Agreement to Overhaul PA’s Alternative Education Programs to Protect Students with Disabilities and English Learners but Says Agreement Ignores Racial Disparities

 

The U.S. Department of Justice has reached a comprehensive agreement with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), settling a federal civil rights investigation triggered by the Education Law Center’s 2013 complaint challenging discriminatory practices in the state’s disciplinary “alternative education” programs.  Read ELC’s full news release here.

The programs covered by the agreement are known as Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth (AEDY) programs. ELC’s civil rights complaint reported that at the time more than 14,000 students in Pennsylvania were segregated in the state’s 700+ approved AEDY programs.

“If the state implements and builds on what is now on paper, this new agreement has the potential to significantly transform alternative education in Pennsylvania in a positive direction,” said ELC executive director Deborah Gordon Klehr. “The Education Law Center will be working with parents, students, and other stakeholders to ensure that the detailed remedies are implemented promptly and with fidelity by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, to both protect the students already in these programs and students who could be improperly placed in them.”

Education Law Center’s complaint highlighted the high percentages of students with disabilities and African American students in AEDY programs across the state. In 82 Pennsylvania school districts, more than half the students sent to AEDY programs were students with disabilities, compared to a 16 percent special education population statewide. African American students comprised 35 percent of the students placed into alternative education programs, yet only 15 percent of Pennsylvania students.

See ELC’s fact sheet about exiting alternative education programs, with tips for parents of students with disabilities.

Response to Rescission of Federal School Discipline Guidance and to School Safety Recommendations

The widespread problem of racial discrimination in school discipline is well documented. The 2014 federal discipline guidance from the Obama administration formally recognized that for the first time and challenged exclusionary discipline practices that disproportionately impact students of color and students with disabilities. A December 18, 2018, report from the Federal Commission on School Safety, led by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, has called for rescinding those guidelines. ELC’s statement in response said that a decision to rescind the federal guidance as recommended is bound to allow discriminatory practices in schools to proliferate.

Three days later, on December 21, the federal government proceeded to rescind the guidance, despite widespread opposition. ELC’s statement in response is here.

Education Law Center Applauds Change in Philadelphia’s Student Discipline Policy

ELC has long advocated for alternatives to out-of-school suspensions of young children; they are not age-appropriate and do not make schools safer. Suspensions of kindergartners were banned in Philadelphia in 2016. The District’s School Reform Commission in June 2018 formally changed the School District’s student conduct and discipline policy, extending the existing ban on out-of-school suspensions to cover grades 1 and 2. This means that students in those grades cannot be suspended unless it is shown that their behavior resulted in serious bodily injury. Read our release here.

ELC Files Comments with the US Commission on Civil Rights Emphasizing the Importance of Federal Guidance and Regulations Designed to Protect Students of Color with Disabilities from Discrimination.

On January 16, 2018, ELC submitted comments to the US Commission on Civil Rights to highlight the fundamental importance of federal guidance and regulations in protecting the education rights of students of color who have disabilities.   Citing data showing significant and continuing disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes due to discrimination on the basis of race and disability, the comments conclude:  “ELC applauds the U.S Commission on Civil Rights’ efforts to highlight the issue of discriminatory discipline of students of color with disabilities and the need for continued enforcement of federal laws that directly addresses racial and disability disproportionality. We urge federal policymakers to continue and enhance enforcement through full implementation of the Guidance to encourage districts to remedy profound disciplinary disparities among students of color with disabilities.”  The comments were prepared by ELC attorneys  Reynelle Brown Staley, Deborah Klehr, Maura McInerney, and Kristina Moon.  Read the comments here.

Education Law Center Condemns White Supremacist Violence in Charlottesville, VA

We stand with the school children we serve to condemn the bigotry, hate, and violence of white supremacists in Charlottesville. We are deeply saddened and outraged by these tragic events and know that the racism we witnessed in Virginia exists in other communities across our country. We cannot and will not tolerate it.

We are reminded that no person is born to hate — it is something that is taught. ELC pledges its commitment to call out and confront the growing racism and bigotry we are seeing in our schools: from the harassment of students based on race and religion, to the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of children of color and children with disabilities. We pledge to fight discrimination, to be a catalyst for promoting respect and tolerance, and to be a champion for true inclusion. We commit to continuing our work to end discriminatory practices in enrollment and learning opportunities, end gross racial disparities in school funding, and dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

America is better than this. We are better than this. We stand with parents, teachers, youth, community partners, and other civil rights advocates who are working tirelessly every day to condemn and combat racism and ensure that our children learn the power of diversity, equality, and true democracy.

Thank you for your partnership in this important work.

Deborah Gordon Klehr
Executive Director

 

Local advocates brace for changes in federal education civil rights policy

“I don’t think districts are off the hook from following civil rights laws.”  Deborah Gordon Klehr, ELC Executive Director

7/17/2017 by , published in The Philadelphia School Notebook

Local advocates and civil rights leaders are preparing to be more watchful in response to the decision under the Trump administration to scale back the U.S. Department of Education’s investigations of civil rights violations.

The department announced in early June that it is changing its approach to dealing with discrimination complaints.

Through an internal memo, Candice Jackson, acting head of the department’s Office for Civil Rights, stated that investigations into systemic discrimination will no longer be required and cases will be treated on an individual basis. Civil rights advocates, including those in Philadelphia, say the new protocol could spell disaster for the nation’s most vulnerable students. Continue reading

School Reform Commission approves new in-house special education program: The District downscaled the proposal after advocates complained, but concerns linger.

July 6, 2017 — Philadelphia Public School Notebook — by Dale Mezzacappa and Avi Wolfman-Arent

The School Reform Commission voted Thursday to establish a new in-house special education program for 100 students, most diagnosed with social-emotional disabilities and now placed in facilities run by Wordsworth. The new program will be run initially by the private education provider Catapult Learning before transitioning to full District control.

State bill would halt suspensions up to sixth grade

April 5, 2017 – The Philadelphia Tribune – by Stacy M. Brown

HARRISBURG — Year after year, African-American students and other minorities have faced much harsher discipline in public schools than their peers, based on information provided by the state Department of Education.  Continue reading

Education Law Center releases new PA school funding report highlighting racial and class inequities

State needs to both increase funding levels and distribute dollars more fairly

March 7 2017 – As the General Assembly debates Pennsylvania’s education budget for next year, the Education Law Center released a report today highlighting how persistent state underfunding of schools has entrenched widespread inequities and inequalities, particularly in schools that serve lower-income families and large numbers of students of color.  Continue reading

We’re committed to protecting students’ civil rights

November, 2016

The Education Law Center-PA (ELC) is deeply concerned by ongoing racist, homophobic, xenophobic, and misogynistic rhetoric and incidents in schools. We assure our partners across the state that we will continue holding school districts to their legal obligations to maintain a school atmosphere where students can thrive and do not face fears of violence or discrimination.

ELC remains steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to quality public education. We advocate on behalf of our most vulnerable students, including children living in poverty, children of color, children with disabilities, English Language Learners, and LGBTQ students, to ensure that prejudice and bigotry do not impede their civil rights. We have been privileged to spend the last 41 years working on behalf of students and families and will continue to adapt to whatever challenges are to come.

We are reminded that the road to educational equity is a marathon, not a sprint, and we promise to continue working in the courtroom and in the community to protect the following rights of Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren:

EDUCATION LAW CENTER’S STATEMENT OF STUDENT RIGHTS

The right to be free from discrimination or harassment based on race

Students have the right to attend schools free of discrimination and harassment based on their race, color, or national origin.

The right to be free from discrimination based on disability

Students with disabilities have the right to a free appropriate public education and to be educated in the regular education classroom to the maximum extent appropriate for the student with the disability. Students have the right to accommodations in school and cannot be punished for behavior related to their disability.

The right to be free from discrimination based on religion and to wear religious clothing in school

Students have the right to practice their religion in school and must be allowed to wear religious clothing and head coverings.

The right to be free from discrimination based on immigration and/or English Language Learner status

Students have the right to enroll in public school regardless of immigration or citizenship status. Students who are English Language Learners have the right to programming that helps them overcome language barriers.

The right to be free from discrimination based on gender and gender identity

Gender discrimination and sexual harassment are illegal. Students also have the right to wear clothing consistent with their stated gender. Some Pennsylvania school districts have adopted policies to expressly protecting rights based on gender identity. Litigation is ongoing to protect the right of students to use restrooms and locker-rooms that are consistent with their gender identity.

The right to be treated equally regardless of sexual orientation

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and queer students have the same right to be free of discrimination and harassment as other students.

The right to be emotionally and physically safe in school

Students have the right to be free from bullying by students and adults, and students cannot be retaliated against for reporting bullying.

The right to freedom of expression

Students have the right to free speech and cannot be censored unless the speech is obscene, creates an imminent threat, or is significantly disruptive. This includes the right to publish articles in a school paper, to refuse to salute the flag, and to wear political armbands.


The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness. Every situation is different. If questions remain about how the law applies to a situation or if you think your rights have been violated, contact us by visiting www.elc-pa.org/contact or by calling 215-238-6970 (Philadelphia) or 412-258-2120 (Pittsburgh).

Click here to download a PDF version of this statement. 

ELC Statement in Reponse to Philadelphia’s Suspension and Dress Code Policy Changes

August 22, 2016

We commend the School Reform Commission for restricting the use of suspensions against Kindergarten students and for adopting a revised dress code policy that removes subjective language which disproportionately impacted students of color, especially black girls. These reforms place Philadelphia on the frontlines of a movement to eliminate ineffective and harmful disciplinary policies that deny children access to the classroom and place them at risk for experiencing future educational barriers. However, the resolution restricting the use of suspensions against Kindergarten students does not go far enough; the District should restrict the use of suspensions for students in first and second grade, too. Across the nation, school districts and states have eliminated or restricted the use of suspensions against students in early elementary grades. Minneapolis, Seattle, Chicago, Houston, Connecticut, and most recently, New York City, have all banned or substantially limited this harmful and developmentally-inappropriate practice. Philadelphia should be no different. Suspensions to students in early elementary grades negatively impact their future educational outcomes and fuel the School-to-Prison Pipeline. Furthermore, exclusionary discipline is meted out, both in Philadelphia and nationally, in a disproportionate manner against students of color. To reduce the harmful and discriminatory effects, the School District of Philadelphia must curtail its reliance on exclusionary discipline in the early elementary grades even further. We look forward to partnering with the District and the SRC to help it follow through on its stated commitment to end this harmful practice.

Click here to download our letter to the School Reform Commission.

SICC Passes Resolution Pressing OCDEL to Ban the Use of Exclusionary Discipline in Early Childhood Programs

ELC applauds Pennsylvania State Interagency Coordinating Council (SICC) for passing a resolution urging the Office of Child Development and Early Learning (OCDEL) to develop a comprehensive statewide policy banning the use of exclusionary discipline in all early learning programs across Pennsylvania.

The Resolution was a direct result of our work, in collaboration with the ACLU and our early intervention and early childhood partners, who pressed the SICC to take this action. In March, ELC Pittsburgh Director Nancy A. Hubley and ACLU Executive Director Harold Jordan presented to the SICC on the compelling state and national data and new Federal guidance to highlight the damage done through exclusionary discipline. ELC pressed the SICC and OCDEL to develop and implement new statewide, interagency policies to address the discriminatory use of exclusionary discipline in Pre-K programs. At the conclusion of the presentation, SICC members introduced the resolution, which was ultimately passed on June 2, 2016.

The Resolution recognizes that all young children deserve to be in inclusive, high quality early childhood programs. It further acknowledges that for this to occur it is imperative that our youngest learners are not being suspended, expelled, and otherwise excluded from the learning environment. This is particularly important given that young African American children and children receiving, or who are eligible to receive, special education and early intervention services are disproportionately pushed out of early learning programs. The Resolution calls for OCDEL to address race and disability as it continues to build accountability and professional capacity for early learning programs to serve all children.

ELC acknowledges the good work OCDEL is already doing to move in this direction, with increasing attention and development of interagency supports, accurate data collection systems, and race-positive, gender-specific, and trauma-informed professional development. OCDEL is convening multiple forums this summer to continue the conversation with key stakeholders to inform the development of a statewide policy that not only bans exclusionary discipline in Pre-K programs, but further develops and supports the inclusion of all students in early education programs.

As ELC continues this work to limit and eliminate the use of exclusionary discipline in early childhood settings, we also remain committed to raising and addressing these issues in other forums, including school districts and the General Assembly, to extend this ban to students in elementary school.