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.

OCR Opens Investigation into Claims of Discrimination against School District of Philadelphia for Failing to Address Bullying of Children with Disabilities

On November 28, 2017, the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) announced that it has opened an investigation into claims of discrimination filed by the Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) regarding the School District of Philadelphia’s treatment of children with disabilities who have been bullied and harassed. ELC’s Complaint, filed July 27, 2017, alleged a systemic failure by the School District of Philadelphia (“District”) to promptly and appropriately address pervasive and severe bullying of students with disabilities as exemplified by the stories of multiple students.   Read the news release here.


Pa. Department of Education finds Philadelphia School District Violated Rights of at least 800 Children Starting Kindergarten

The Education Law Center has successfully filed a complaint against the School District of Philadelphia on behalf of hundreds of students with disabilities who were not provided with needed services after entering kindergarten or first-grade. The Pennsylvania Department of Education has issued corrective action in response to the complaint, requiring the School District of Philadelphia to issue compensatory education services for all children who were denied a free, appropriate, public education due to the District’s delay and inaction. The Education Law Center applauded the Department’s findings and intervention but also requested further corrective action.  Here are links to read the Complaint and the Department’s Complaint Investigation Report.

Education Law Center Challenges School District of Philadelphia’s Failure to Address Severe Bullying of Students with Disabilities

PHILADELPHIA, PA (July 27) Yesterday, the Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) filed a Complaint with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) alleging a systemic failure by the School District of Philadelphia (“District”) to promptly and appropriately address pervasive and severe bullying of students with disabilities.
“Sadly, students with disabilities are far more likely to experience bullying in school than their non-disabled peers,” said Alex Dutton, Independence Fellow at the Education Law Center. “Under federal law, these students are entitled to an educational program that enables them to make meaningful progress in school. Bullying of a student with a disability on any basis may interfere with this critical right, and school districts must promptly and appropriately address it.”
“The District’s failure to address bullying denies students with disabilities access to equal educational opportunities and is therefore discriminatory,” said ELC Senior Attorney Maura McInerney.
The Complaint alleges that in some cases, the District failed to respond to parents’ complaints about bullying for months and even years.
In one case, a third-grade child with disabilities was kicked and punched by classmates, causing a concussion, and repeatedly called derogatory names like “retard” and “dumb.”
Another nine-year-old child was repeatedly called “idiot” and “stupid” by her classmates, who told her they hoped she never came back to class.
The Complaint details how children who once loved school cried, shook, and begged not to go to school following months of pervasive bullying. Some of these parents asked the District to transfer their children to new schools, away from the bullying, but the District refused.
“What we see is that parents, having tried for months to get the District to do something, make the rational choice to keep their children home on days when they are demonstrating extreme aversion to school,” Dutton said. “Rather than intervene in accordance with federal anti-discrimination laws, the District’s response was to refer these families to Truancy Court, where the problem is framed as a failure of the family. This is not only discriminatory, it erodes any semblance of trust between District staff and the families they serve.”
Attorneys for the parents hope that the Complaint will result in the implementation of new District policies and training to ensure school staff promptly and properly intervene to resolve bullying of students with disabilities in an appropriate, non-discriminatory manner. ELC is also seeking individual relief for the named students.
The students in this Complaint are represented by ELC attorneys Alex Dutton and Maura McInerney. More information about the case and a link to download a copy of the Complaint are here.
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/NGC students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information visit https://elc-pa.org/ or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

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


ELC files OCR complaint to remedy bullying of students with disabilities in the School District of Philadelphia

On July 26, 2017, ELC filed a Complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on behalf of students with disabilities in the School District of Philadelphia, alleging discrimination based on a systemic failure by the District to promptly and appropriately address severe and pervasive bullying of these students.  The Complaint chronicles the bullying of four students and explains how the District’s failure to respond to parent complaints, denying students the right to transfer, and referring students and parents to Truancy Court led to prolonged periods of pervasive bullying and the deprivation of free, appropriate public education to vulnerable students with disabilities.  ELC is seeking systemic reforms to remedy the District’s policies and practices.  You can read a copy of ELC’s Complaint here.

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.

Important Victory for Parents with Limited English Proficiency and their Children with Disabilities, as Lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia Moves Forward

December 2, 2016

Philadelphia, Pa. –  A federal class action lawsuit challenging the failure a major school district to provide translation and interpretation services to limited English proficient parents of children with disabilities is moving forward.  This week a federal judge soundly rejected a request by the School District of Philadelphia to throw out any of the seven claims asserted against them in a case involving more than a thousand children with disabilities whose parents speak little or no English. The case will now proceed with fact discovery and class certification proceedings.

The lawsuit filed in 2015 by the Public Interest Law Center, the Education Law Center-PA, and Drinker Biddle & Reath LLP alleges that parents and their children are illegally denied the opportunity to participate in the special education process and receive critical services because they don’t understand or speak English and are provided with documents in English that they don’t understand. The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs’ claims of national origin discrimination.

Under federal disability law, children with disabilities are entitled to an educational planning process, including meetings and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), to ensure they receive a free and appropriate public education. The complaint alleges that the School District refuses to sufficiently interpret the meetings or translate the documents related to this process in a timely manner, preventing parents from meaningfully participating in making informed decisions regarding educational placements and services. The complaint further alleges that as of the 2013-14 school year, there were 1,500 students learning English who received special education services, and 1,887 students with IEPs who spoke a language other than English at home.

The School District sought to dismiss every count of the complaint, including claims brought under laws protecting children with disabilities and those protecting against discrimination based on national origin. The Court denied the motion in its entirety, holding that the plaintiffs had stated valid legal claims.

“This decision is a profoundly moving one for me,” said Anna Perng, an activist in the Asian American community who assists limited English proficient parents. “I grew up with a learning disability. My immigrant parents were not able to get me services and supports due to lack of interpretation and translation in the IEP process. Today, I run a monthly support group for immigrant parents to help them advocate for their children with disabilities. I applaud the Public Interest Law Center, Education Law Center and Drinker Biddle & Reath for fighting to ensure that all students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education. We are one step closer to realizing the promise of federal special education law: all means all.”

“This decision stands for a proposition enshrined in the civil rights laws of our country, that parents and children who do not speak English have the same rights to participate in our education system as those who do, ” said Michael Churchill, of Counsel at the Public Interest Law Center.

“This case is about the critical need for translation and interpretation services during the special education process,” said Chanda A. Miller, a Drinker Biddle attorney who argued the case before the Court in September. “We are pleased that the Court has ordered this case to go forward, so that one day all parents in the School District of Philadelphia, regardless of their English proficiency, may have the same opportunities to participate in their children’s special education plans.”

The U.S. Department of Education is closely following the case and previously issued a “Dear Colleague” letter in response to DOJ’s filing, clarifying that state educational agencies and school districts have “independent responsibilities to provide LEP parents of children with disabilities meaningful access through timely and complete translation and oral interpretation.”

“This is a potentially precedent-setting case that is being watched in other jurisdictions,” said Maura McInerney, Senior Attorney at Education Law Center-PA. “The Court’s ruling sends an important message that our disability and civil rights laws create enforceable protections and that all parents — including those with limited English proficiency — have an unequivocal right to meaningful participation in the special education process.  They cannot be discriminated against on the basis of language and national origin and their children have a right to equal educational opportunities.”

The lawsuit builds from two administrative special education hearings during which the hearing officer found that the District had violated the rights of the students and parents to meaningfully participate in their children’s education. However, the hearing officer stated that he lacked the authority to order systemic change to remedy the situation.

The complaint asks the Court to order the District to provide complete and timely translations of special education documents; to notify parents that they are entitled to such documents in their native language; to provide sufficient oral interpretation services for key encounters pertaining to special education services; and to provide bilingual evaluations for all students who need them.

Parents of children with disabilities who have not had educational documents translated for them should contact the Education Law Center at 215-346-6905 or the Public Interest Law Center at 215-627-7100.


# # #

The Public Interest Law Center uses high-impact legal strategies to improve the well-being and life prospects of vulnerable populations by ensuring they have access to fundamental resources including a high-quality public education, access to health care, employment, housing, safe and healthy neighborhoods and the right to vote. For more information visit http://www.pubintlaw.org or on Twitter @PubIntLawCtr.

The Education Law Center-PA works to ensure that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information, visit https://elc-pa.orgor follow @edlawcenterpa on Twitter.

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:


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. 

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.

Mother in dispute with district over emails

May 15, 2016 – The Citizens’ Voice – by Michael P. Buffer

A Wyoming Area School District teacher compared making accommodations for a special-needs student to appeasing Adolf Hitler and suggested it “would be nice if we spent this much extra time” on students who are “going to amount to something,” according to emails obtained by the student’s mother.

The mother, Holly Miller, has been in a dispute with the school district for more than 19 months over the education of her 12-year-old daughter, a seventh-grade student with learning disabilities.


Maura McInerney, a senior attorney for the Education Law Center, said teachers sometimes don’t understand legal mandates regarding students with disabilities and don’t know how to deal with students with special needs.

“Teachers and administrators may not have a full understanding of a disability and how it manifests itself,” McInerney said.

The Education Law Center is a legal advocacy organization based in Philadelphia and is dedicated to ensuring access by Pennsylvania’s children to a quality public education.

The best approach for school officials and teachers is “a collaborative relationship with the family” when determining the appropriate education for a student with special needs, McInerney said.

Serino said she has been personally involved in issues involving Miller’s daughter, adding she had “a very productive” meeting with Miller earlier this month.

“I am willing to work with her and do whatever I can, and will continue to do so,” Serino said. “She is a concerned mother — I am never going to take that away from her — who cares about her daughter. I understand she wants everything that’s best for her.”