D.C. School Superintendent Arlene Ackerman announced yesterday that she has settled two major class-action lawsuits against the system's special education division, a key step in her bid to fix a program that has long failed to provide services to thousands hof disabled children.
The settlement commits the school system to clearing up the backlog of cases in which hundreds of children have not received special education services. It also provides for the creation of programs in local schools to meet these students' needs. More than 10 percent of District school children qualify for special education services. One more class-action suit against the division remains unresolved.
Ackerman's administration negotiated secretly for the past several months with attorneys for parents in the lawsuits, known as the Blackman and Jones cases. The suits both were filed in 1997 in U.S. District Court and were joined by Judge Paul L. Friedman. The settlement, reached with the help of mediators, allows both sides to avoid a trial that was set to begin Monday.
"I think this shows that Superintendent Ackerman and Deputy Superintendent [Elois] Brooks are seriously committed to changing the way special education is done in the District," said Tammy Seltzer, a lawyer with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law who represented parents in the Blackman case.
Some parents said they were pleased but cautious about the settlement. Chris Llewellyn said her 12-year-old daughter is being schooled at home because she could not get services from D.C. schools. "If they do everything they promise in the agreement, it will bring about a significant change," she said. "But they will still have a long way to go."
Charles Moran, an attorney for parents in the cases, said the agreement shows an unprecedented commitment by school officials to put in writing specific actions that can be monitored. The agreement, however, does not include sanctions if officials violate it, according to Alisa Reff, a lawyer with the firm of Swidler Berlin Shereff Friedman, which represented parents in the cases. Seltzer said attorneys can return to court if necessary.
Until now, school officials have had a poor record of honoring special education commitments. They repeatedly failed to meet a compliance agreement reached last year with the Department of Education. The remaining class-action suit, known as the Petties case, is nowhere near resolution, attorney Beth Goodman said.
Judge Friedman recently blasted school officials for ignoring his orders in the Petties case, which involves the special education transportation system.
Yesterday, however, officials said things will be different now. That Seltzer, a prominent special education advocate, praised Ackerman is a sign that she has confidence progress is being made. Just a few months ago, Seltzer said nothing had improved in special education since Ackerman became superintendent in May 1998.
D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) issued a statement commending Ackerman for making "fundamental and systemic changes to a seriously broken program."
The Blackman case was filed on behalf of parents and guardians whose requests for hearings about special education services for their children were not honored within the 35-day period required by local law or whose complaints were not decided within the 45-day period required by federal law.
The Jones case was filed on behalf of parents and guardians who had won their cases but found the school system failed to implement the decisions within the specified time.
Under the settlement, the system has agreed to hold hearings or otherwise resolve the backlog of hearing requests, estimated at more than 700, by the end of summer. The backlog of some 400 unimplemented decisions will be cleared up in stages, with the goal of reaching compliance with all decisions and agreements by the end of the first semester of the 1999-2000 school year.
Officials already are training principals to handle special education students better. In 10 elementary schools and two middle schools, new programs will help teachers work with special education students within regular classes, and 20 schools will get new early childhood classes for special education students. Ackerman also agreed to hire a special education consultant.
Ackerman also said she hopes to use some money this year to help make old school buildings more accessible to students with disabilities. The schools' chief financial officer, Donald Rickford, said about $116 million has been discovered in the capital improvements budget that can be used for the renovations.