Parents and Advocates Sue State of Georgia Over Separate and Unequal Education for Thousands of Students with Disabilities

Parents of Children with Disabilities, The Georgia Advocacy Office, The Center for Public Representation, The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, The Arc, DLA Piper LLP, and The Goodmark Firm File Class Action Lawsuit Against State of Georgia

ATLANTA, GA (Oct. 11, 2017) – Today, parents of children with disabilities, the Georgia Advocacy Office, the Center for Public Representation, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, The Arc, DLA Piper LLP, and the Goodmark Law Firm filed a class action lawsuit in federal court alleging that the State of Georgia has discriminated against thousands of public school students with disabilities by providing them with a separate and unequal education via the State’s Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Supports Program (GNETS).

The complaint filed in United States District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, alleges that the State, in denying GNETS students the opportunity to be educated with their non-disabled peers in neighborhood schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. For more information about the litigation, please visit www.centerforpublicrep.org/court_case/gao-v-georgia/.

“The Georgia Advocacy Office (GAO), the independent Protection and Advocacy System for People with Disabilities in Georgia, is demanding the State abandon GNETS and stop segregating youth with disabilities,” said Ruby Moore, Executive Director of GAO. “GNETS programs are a relic of a time where people with disabilities were thought to be uneducable. GAO has and will continue to fight against GNETS and any program or service that unnecessarily segregates people with disabilities.”

GNETS are segregated programs that serve only students with disabilities, housed in entirely separate buildings or in separate wings of neighborhood schools, for students who need services for their disability-related behaviors. In 2016, over 5,000 students with disabilities were placed in GNETS. Most of these students are African-American and 100% of the students enrolled experience disabilities. “The State of Georgia’s segregated GNETS system flies in the face of long-standing Supreme Court precedent,” said Alison Barkoff, Director of Advocacy for the Center for Public Representation. “The Court recognized long ago that ‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’ And the Supreme Court in Olmstead v. L.C. made clear that the ADA forbids the needless isolation or segregation of people with disabilities, because it deprives them of opportunities like getting an education and social contacts with peers.”

GNETS students are denied access to physical education, art, music, and extra-curricular activities, and many GNETS centers have no library, cafeteria, gym, science lab, music room, or playground. Some GNETS centers are located in buildings that were used to teach African-American students during the Jim Crow era, much of the instruction is performed via online programs rather than with certified teachers, and educational curricula are not aligned with State standards. Accordingly, GNETS students rarely earn a diploma. The GNETS graduation rate is only 10% in contrast to a nearly 80% graduation rate in neighborhood schools. Students in GNETS are physically restrained on a routine basis, nearly 10,000 times in 2014-2016. “Although advertised as ‘therapeutic,’ GNETS are anything but – often student behavior worsens once placed in GNETS because of the harsh and punitive atmosphere in the schools,” said attorney Craig Goodmark. “Decades of research and practice show that students with and without disabilities do best academically and socially when they learn alongside each other.”

Instead of providing local school districts with the resources to offer the services these students need, the State is spending millions of dollars on segregated settings. “GNETS was intended to be a placement of the last resort. Instead, GNETs has become a dumping ground for students whom local school districts do not want to educate,” said Ira Burnim, the Bazelon Center’s Legal Director. “Georgia is the only state in the country to systematically segregate students with disabilities on a statewide basis. This is a plain violation of federal disability laws intended to ensure that students with disabilities are able to learn and receive services in integrated settings along with their peers without disabilities.”

In response to the efforts of a broad coalition of stakeholders seeking to end the illegal segregation of students in GNETS, the Georgia Coalition for Equity in Education, and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) performed a multi-year investigation (www.ada.gov/olmstead/documents/gnets_lof.pdf) of GNETS. The investigation eventually culminated in a lawsuit against the State, alleging that the State’s administration of the GNETS system violates the ADA by “unnecessarily segregating students with disabilities from their peers” and providing “unequal” education opportunities to GNETS students. That lawsuit has been put on hold pending a decision from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals regarding DOJ’s authority to bring suit.

“The Arc has long fought for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities to be educated in their neighborhood schools with appropriate services, supplementary aids, and supports,” said Stacey Ramirez, Director of The Arc’s Georgia state office. “Georgia’s systemic segregation of students with disabilities is unacceptable to The Arc and its constituents in Georgia. With DOJ’s lawsuit now on hold, the children of Georgia can wait no longer.”

About The Arc

The Arc is the largest national community-based organization advocating for and serving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and their families. In partnership with its network of 650 chapters across the country, The Arc works to promote and protect the rights of people with I/DD to live, work, and learn in the community free from discrimination. Through its Georgia state office, The Arc seeks to ensure that students with I/DD throughout the state can meaningfully access the myriad benefits, programs, and services offered to students in neighborhood public schools. To learn more, visit www.thearc.org.

About The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law

The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law is a national legal advocacy organization protecting and advancing the rights of people with mental disabilities. The Center promotes laws and policies that enable people with mental disabilities to live independently in their own homes and

communities, and to enjoy the same opportunities that everyone else does. For more information, visit www.bazelon.org.

About The Center for Public Representation

The Center for Public Representation (CPR) is a national legal advocacy center for people with disabilities. For 40 years, CPR has been enforcing and expanding the rights of people with disabilities and others who are in segregated settings. CPR uses legal strategies, advocacy, and policy to design and implement systemic reform initiatives to that promote integration and full community participation. To learn more about our work, visit www.centerforpublicrep.org.

About DLA Piper LLP

DLA Piper is a global law firm with lawyers located in more than 40 countries throughout the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia Pacific, positioning us to help clients with their legal needs around the world. To learn more, visit www.dlapiper.com/en/us.

About The Georgia Advocacy Office

The Georgia Advocacy Office is Georgia’s designated Protection and Advocacy System. GAO envisions a Georgia where all people have value, visibility and voice; where even the most difficult and long-lasting challenges are addressed by ordinary citizens acting voluntarily on behalf of each other; and where the perception of disability is replaced by the recognition of ability. GAO’s mission is to organize our resources and follow our values and legal mandates in ways which substantially increase the number of people who are voluntarily standing beside and for people in Georgia who have significant disabilities and mental illness. To learn more, visit www.thegao.org.

About The Goodmark Law Firm

Since 1999, Mr. Goodmark has dedicated a majority of his practice to representing families, teachers and students in their pursuit of equality, fairness and justice in Georgia’s schools. To learn more, visit www.goodmarklaw.com.

SSI Makes Allowances for Student Finances

By Mary L. Waltari, Esq., Special Needs Alliance

Students with disabilities and their families sometimes worry that the very process of becoming educated—with an important goal being increased economic independence—can reduce SSI (Supplemental Security Income). Probably not. The Social Security Administration wants to encourage self-sufficiency and has guidelines that, in many cases, will enable individuals receiving SSI to continue their education without diminishing monthly payments.

SSI is a monthly cash payment made to eligible individuals with disabilities and, in many cases, it’s fundamental to their financial security. It’s a means-tested benefit, and until a child reaches the age of 18, parental income and assets are evaluated when determining qualification. Since an individual may not have more than $2,000 in “countable assets,” most minors are ineligible. However, once they reach 18, family assets are no longer considered, and many individuals with disabilities begin receiving SSI at that point. At the same time, many of them continue with high school education until the age of 21. Upon graduation, they may attend vocational training or college. While doing so, they may work a part-time job or receive financial aid, including room and board.

Protected Savings

Special needs trusts (SNTs), ABLE accounts and Social Security’s PASS (Plan to Achieve Self-Support) are several ways to set aside money for education, among other things. While these savings tools are regulated differently from one another, they enable funds for eligible individuals with disabilities to be accumulated without affecting means-tested government programs.

Monthly Earnings

Student Earned Income Exclusions (SEIE) take summer or part-time jobs into account by disregarding more income for students than for non-students. To be eligible, individuals must be under 22 and “regularly attending school,” which generally means going to classes for at least one month during the quarter to which SEIE applies for at least:

  • 12 hours weekly for high school students;
  • 12 hours weekly for vocational training;
  • eight hours weekly for college students

There are exceptions for illness, and different rules apply to home schooling and “homebound” students.

It’s useful to compare SSI guidelines for students with those applied to others:

  • Non-Students: SSI doesn’t count the first $65 of monthly earnings and half of the remainder, along with a $20 general income exclusion. What’s left reduces SSI dollar-for-dollar.
  • Students: SSI disregards the first $1,790 of monthly earnings, up to an annual total of $7,200. Earnings over $1,790 per month will then receive the same earned income exclusion and general income exclusion available for non-students, after which earnings reduce SSI dollar-for-dollar.

Financial Aid

Any financial assistance covered by Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 or Bureau of Indian Affairs programs isn’t counted as income, regardless of use. Interest and dividends from unspent funds are also exempt. Pell Grants, Federal Work-Study and Direct Loans are just a few of the covered programs.

But it does matter when and how financial aid and gifts from other sources are spent:

  • There’s no effect on SSI so long as funds are spent on education-related needs within nine months of receipt.
  • Funds set aside for education purposes but ultimately used differently are counted as income at the earlier of two points: in the month they’re spent or the month the individual no longer intends to use the funds for educational purposes
  • Funds that are neither set aside for education nor immediately spent for that purpose are counted as income during the month of receipt and counted as a resource the next month.

Student Housing

Since SSI is intended to pay for food and shelter, non-students have their payments reduced when they receive such in-kind support and maintenance (ISM) from other sources. In such cases, SSI may be cut back by up to one-third of the maximum federal SSI monthly benefit, plus $20.

But if a student receiving SSI resides on campus, with room and board covered by parents or financial aid, other rules apply. The school living arrangements will be considered temporary and not categorized as ISM if:

  • the individual is over 18;
  • will return to their permanent address during holidays, vacations or following graduation;
  • and lived at their permanent address for at least one calendar month prior to attending school.

On the other hand, if the student receives free housing and meals at their permanent residence, ISM applies and SSI will be reduced.

The Social Security Administration recognizes that education can be a gateway to independence for individuals with disabilities. Paying attention to these guidelines can ensure that students aren’t financially penalized for their ambitions.

Mary L. Waltari is a member of the Special Needs Alliance, a national nonprofit dedicated to assisting individuals with disabilities, their families and the professionals who serve them. SNA is partnering with The Arc to provide educational resources, build public awareness and advocate for policies on behalf of people with intellectual/developmental disabilities and their families.

The Arc@School Releases Report on Special Education Advocacy and The Arc’s Chapter Network

School may be almost out for the summer, but The Arc@School is still in session.  Now in its second year, The Arc@School continues its mission to build the capacity of The Arc’s nationwide network of chapters to provide individual advocacy that helps students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) navigate the special education system.  Equal access to education is a fundamental right for all citizens and an important building block for a strong society.  For students with I/DD, a high-quality education can make an enormous difference in the quality of life and degree of independence they enjoy in adulthood. Special education advocacy is instrumental in ensuring that students’ rights are respected and that they receive the services and supports necessary to graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary education and employment.

With these ideals in mind, The Arc@School conducted an investigation of existing special education advocacy practices and published a report entitled Special Education Advocacy and The Arc’s Chapter Network: Findings from The Arc@School.  Students with I/DD, parents, educators, and advocates can find:

  • A brief overview of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the growth of non-attorney lay advocacy in special education;
  • A description of the curriculum, length, and cost of current advocacy training programs, such as Wrightslaw and the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA);
  • A description of The Arc networks’ current capacity for providing individual special education advocacy;
  • A summary of the current limited academic research on best practices in special education advocacy; and
  • A list of program recommendations that The Arc@School intends to implement in the coming years, such as a suggestion that The Arc@School collaborate with the COPAA, PTI Center, and protection and advocacy networks to ensure that scarce special education advocacy resources reach as many families as possible.

To read the report, please see Special Education Advocacy and The Arc’s Chapter Network.

The Arc Applauds U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Special Education Case: “The IDEA Demands More”

By: Shira Wakschlag, Director of Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel

On Wednesday, in the second major win for students with disabilities and their families before the U.S. Supreme Court this term, the Court issued a unanimous decision in the special education case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1. In an opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court clarified the test for determining whether school districts have met their obligation to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to students with disabilities, definitively rejecting the incredibly low standard utilized by the Tenth Circuit in this case. Specifically, the Court held that:

To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances…After all, the essential function of an IEP is to set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement…A substantive standard not focused on student progress would do little to remedy the pervasive and tragic academic stagnation that prompted Congress to act.

Significantly, this is the first time the Court has articulated a specific standard of review for educational benefit required for schools to meet their FAPE obligations under the IDEA. In 1982, the Court held in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley that the IDEA establishes a substantive right to FAPE for children with disabilities but declined to establish a specific standard for determining when children with disabilities are receiving sufficient educational benefits to satisfy the IDEA. Lower courts have thus interpreted this substantive right in a variety of ways, some applying an incredibly low standard of review as the Tenth Circuit did in this case, while others have established a higher bar and called for a “meaningful benefit” standard.

Here, Drew, a child with autism, was removed from public school in fourth grade by his parents when his behavior began deteriorating and he ceased making academic progress. His IEP repeated the same basic goals from year to year, indicating a lack of progress toward the IEP goals. His parents believed a dramatic change to the IEP was necessary, but the school district continued to present the same IEP without any meaningful changes. Accordingly, Drew’s parents put him in a private school that specialized in educating students with autism and developed a behavioral intervention plan as well as more meaningful and robust academic goals. As a result, Drew began making dramatic progress. Drew’s parents then met again with the school district who presented them with a new IEP that did not incorporate any goals or approaches that would match the level of services he was receiving at the private school.

His parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education seeking tuition reimbursement for Drew’s private school due to the school district’s failure to provide him with a FAPE since his final IEP was not “reasonably calculated to enable him to receive educational benefits.” The Administrative Law Judge disagreed and the district court and Tenth Circuit affirmed. Citing Rowley and prior Tenth Circuit precedent, the panel noted that it had long interpreted Rowley’s “some educational benefit” requirement to mean that an IEP was adequate as long as it was calculated to confer an educational benefit that is “merely more than de minimis.” “De minimis” is a Latin phrase meaning “so minor as to merit disregard.”

As noted above, the Supreme Court unequivocally rejected this bare bones approach to evaluating educational benefit and articulated a new, higher standard. The Court explained that when a child with a disability is integrated into the regular classroom, the IDEA typically requires providing a level of instruction that is reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum. Where that is not a reasonable expectation, this does not mean that the IEP should be stripped of substantive and meaningful standards. Rather, the IEP:

must be appropriately ambitious in light of [the student’s] circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives. (Emphasis added.)

It is important to note that this decision overturns a standard utilized by Judge Neil Gorsuch who just completed his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee following his nomination to the Supreme Court. Last week, The Arc published a review of Judge Gorsuch’s record on disability rights and highlighted his decision in Thompson R2-JSchool District v. Luke P. in which he employed the merely more than de minimis standard that was later used by the Tenth Circuit in the present case. Dr. Jeffrey Perkins, Luke’s father, testified before the Judiciary Committee on Thursday, noting that Judge Gorsuch’s articulated standard for an educational benefit that is “just above meaningless” was “devastating” to the family and “threatened” Luke’s “access to an appropriate education and thus to a meaningful and dignified life.” As Dr. Perkins explained:

Luke will always need support in a world that still seems perplexing and threatening to him. But his quality of life after 13 years of appropriate education is vastly better than it would have been otherwise. He cooks and does household chores. He is able to shop, work, eat and play in the community…His present life would not have been achievable without an appropriate education.

In his 10th Circuit ruling, Judge Gorsuch eviscerated the educational standard guaranteed by the IDEA…Legal philosophy and case law aside, such an interpretation clearly fails the common sense test. Why would Congress pass a law with such a trivial intent?

The Arc, as part of a large coalition of disability advocacy groups, participated in an amicus brief in support of Drew in November and attended oral arguments before the Court in January. While the standard articulated by the Court is not a detailed formula that specifically defines what appropriate progress will look like from case to case, it is unquestionably more demanding than the standard laid out by Judge Gorsuch and various other circuit court judges. In a time when the ability of people with disabilities to live in the community is under threat, the Court’s unequivocal statement that the “IDEA demands more” is a major victory for students with disabilities and their families that should be celebrated.

The Arc Applauds U.S. Supreme Court Decision Allowing Independent Disability Discrimination Claims Against School Districts

By: Shira Wakschlag, Director, Legal Advocacy & Associate General Counsel

The Arc applauds this decision which removes important barriers for students with disabilities seeking redress under the ADA and Section 504. The Arc has long advocated for the rights of students and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live their lives free from discrimination and with necessary accommodations, to which they are entitled under federal law. This decision is an important step in ensuring robust enforcement and protection of those rights.

In a major win for students with disabilities and their families, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan on Wednesday in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools that allows students to bring lawsuits directly under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) without requesting an administrative hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when their claim is not related to the adequacy of their education. The IDEA requires schools to provide specialized instruction and related services to eligible students to help them make progress on their educational goals. In contrast, the ADA and Section 504 prohibit discrimination of people with disabilities of all ages, both in and out of schools, in any public facility or federally funded program. This decision eliminates certain roadblocks that have prevented students from seeking relief directly in federal court when their claims involve disability discrimination under the ADA or Section 504, rather than their educational services and supports under the IDEA. Attorneys from The Arc attended oral arguments in this case before the U.S. Supreme Court last October.

Ehlena Fry, the plaintiff in the case, has cerebral palsy and uses a service dog, Wonder, to assist her with daily activities, such as “retrieving dropped items, helping her balance when she uses her walker, opening and closing doors, turning on and off lights, helping her take off her coat, [and] helping her transfer to and from the toilet.” When her parents asked the school to allow Ehlena to use Wonder in her kindergarten classroom, the school refused. Ehlena’s individualized education program (IEP) under the IDEA included use of a human aide, and the school argued that the aide met all of Ehlena’s “physical and academic needs,” rendering Wonder unnecessary. As a result, Ehlena’s parents removed her from the school and filed a disability discrimination complaint under the ADA and Section 504 with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

OCR investigated and concluded that the school had discriminated against Ehlena by denying her use of her service dog, just as it would be discrimination to require a student who uses a wheelchair or a blind student to be carried or led around by a teacher or aide rather than permitting the student to use a guide dog or a cane. Following OCR’s investigation and findings, the school agreed to allow Ehlena to attend school with Wonder, but the family chose to enroll her in another school for fear of retaliation. The family also filed a lawsuit in federal court against the school system alleging disability discrimination and seeking monetary damages under the ADA and Section 504 for the school’s previous refusal to reasonably accommodate Ehlena’s use of her service animal. The lawsuit was dismissed by both the federal district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals who concluded that any claims that were educational in nature had to undergo the administrative hearing process in the IDEA before they could be filed in federal court.

In finding in favor of Ehlena and her family, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that students do not have to exhaust the administrative proceedings required in the IDEA when the essence of their claim is not about the IDEA’s free and appropriate public education (FAPE) requirement, as was the case here. The Court’s opinion offered some general guidance on how to identify whether the IDEA’s FAPE requirement is the essence of a lawsuit against a school, distinguishing between a student who uses a wheelchair suing a school for not having an accessible ramp (which is not about FAPE) and a student with a learning disability suing the school for not providing math tutoring (which is about FAPE). A concurring opinion from Justice Samuel Alito, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, criticized this part of the Court’s guidance as creating confusion for the lower courts. In addition, because the Frys were not claiming that Ehlena was denied a FAPE under the IDEA, the Court explicitly chose not to address the question of whether students must exhaust the IDEA’s administrative hearing process when the complaint does allege a denial of FAPE but the specific remedy being requested is not available under the IDEA, such as monetary damages.

Though the decision in Fry leaves some questions unanswered, it does eliminate certain roadblocks that have prevented students from seeking relief directly in federal court when their claims involve disability discrimination under the ADA or Section 504, rather than their educational services and supports under the IDEA.

Building the Bridge to Inclusion through Technology

Many day-to-day technology tasks have become so intuitive for many of us that it’s easy to forget life before these clicks and swipes. For people with I/DD, these skills can make a world of difference by building bridges to community participation.

In 2016, through our partnership with Comcast NBCUniversal, six chapters across the country hosted “Learning Labs” to foster digital literacy skills in their constituents. The classes’ content varied between chapters based on individual needs:

The Arc Baltimore (Maryland)
The Arc Baltimore’s labs provided an overview of Assistive Technology and a demonstration of devices and software to address communication, computer access, eating, environmental control, hearing, home safety, memory and cognition, telephone access, recreation, and vision. Stories were shared on how individuals have utilized devices. A certified Assistive Technology Professional worked one-on-one with participants to identify and experiment with tools that would be a good fit for them.

Easter Seals Arc of Northern IN (Indiana)
Easter Seals/The Arc of Northern Indiana hosted an instructional computer lab focusing on life skills, employment, internet safety, and money management. The session was so successful that one participant found a job he was interested during the class. The next day, he submitted an application online for that job at Game Stop and landed an interview.

The Arc of Prince George’s County (Maryland)
The Arc of PG County hosted labs covering topics related to independent living, including eating healthy, resume building, tech tools for reading, grocery shopping, job seeking/applications, money value, and understanding maps. At the conclusion of the event, local companies even pledged to employ more people with I/DD! One participant, Brianna, found a screen reader helpful—it helped her pronounce words correctly in addition to easier reading. She compared it to audible books and thinks it “unleashes the power of spoken words”.

NewStar Services (Illinois)
NewStar’s labs had a strong focus on iPad skills, including skills for independent living like taking pictures, iMovie, iModeling, maps, planning a trip, and setting and using reminders. Three Learning Lab participants, David, April, and Charles, requested additional labs on the Maps app, and were surprised to learn that there are bus stops extremely close to their houses that will help them gain independent access to the community.

The Arc of San Francisco (California)
The Arc of San Francisco’s labs were centered on using technology for independence and employment. Topics covered included internet safety, Microsoft, LinkedIn, online job searching, and the basics of email. One participant, Kristin, was struggling with how to best use LinkedIn. After working on her picture, resume, endorsements and recommendations in the lab, Kristin landed interviews at both Google and LinkedIn!

The Arc of Lane County (Oregon)
Topics on computer basics, including terminology, parts, safety/care, and typing, were covered. They worked in Microsoft Word, Publisher, Powerpoint, and used email and iPads. Most importantly, they learned about internet safety issues like identity theft protection, safe passwords, and digital footprints. “When asked about his favorite part of the class Jason exclaimed, “I was really excited to make my resume and get closer to my dream job”.

Through this simple exposure to the basics of digital technology, participants are building the skills that will support them to become more independent within their communities. We look forward to expanding Learning Labs to more chapters and building the skills to succeed in people across the country!

Navigating School – The Arc@School Launches Website to Help Students with Disabilities and Their Parents with Special Education Advocacy

“The secret in education lies in respecting the student.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Opportunities for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) have come a long way since children were warehoused in institutions with no future or a real education. One giant leap forward was the enactment of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, which for the first time required schools to educate all students with disabilities—including students with I/DD.

The IDEA lays out a process that schools must follow to identify which children with disabilities require additional services to learn, and which supports and services a child needs. That process often leads to the development and implementation of an individualized education program (IEP). The IEP is the roadmap for that child to succeed. The IDEA has led to a generation of people with I/DD whose education opened doors to employment and meaningful lives in the community. However, far too many families and students do not experience an IEP process where their role and their rights are clear and respected. Instead, they feel left out of the process, which is often overwhelming and confusing.

So in 2016, The Arc launched a new initiative, The Arc@School, to build the capacity of The Arc’s nationwide network of chapters to support students with I/DD and their families in developing and implementing IEPs that will help students with I/DD graduate from high school and pursue post-secondary education and employment.

Many students and their families seek advocates to help them understand the IEP process and their rights, and many chapters of The Arc provide lay special education advocacy services for students with I/DD and their families. The Arc@School’s newly-launched website aims to be an online resource for students with disabilities, their parents, and advocates that includes information, best practices, and a resource directory, where you can find links and contact information for chapters of The Arc, protection and advocacy programs, parent centers, and state education agencies in your state.

A successful IEP is the foundation for a future in the community, leading a life of one’s own choosing. If we are to improve outcomes for students with I/DD, we must follow Emerson’s guidance and focus on an IEP approach that respects the student’s goals to achieve his or her dreams.

A Little Age, A Lot of Perspective

Jill Vaught, Executive Director of The Arc of Indiana Foundation 

It’s not very often that I’m happy to be reminded of how old I am. Today I was. You see, I grew up at a time when people with disabilities were considered disposable. If they hadn’t been sent to live in institutions, they lived in the community – but certainly weren’t included.

Today I received a photo. A student from the Erskine Green Training Institute (EGTI) had gone to one of the food courts at Ball State University for lunch. While there, he ran into friends from high school. He was invited to join their table and later go to a campus event with them.

What does this have to do with my age? I’m glad I’m old enough to remember when scenes like that weren’t possible. It helps me truly appreciate The Arc and how far we’ve come.

I have been lucky enough to work for The Arc in one way or another for 20 years. During that time I’ve seen some amazing things, but nothing has touched my heart quite like EGTI, which opened in Muncie, Indiana in January.

One of the many things that makes The Arc of Indiana such a special organization is that we still take our direction from self-advocates, families and our chapters. In 2012, it became very obvious that the lack of employment opportunities was an issue that had to be addressed.

The reason people with disabilities couldn’t find jobs wasn’t because they didn’t want to work. It wasn’t because our chapters weren’t working hard every day. It wasn’t that families weren’t trying. It always seemed to come back to training or, more specifically, the lack of good postsecondary training options.

In January, 2016, EGTI opened its doors to provide postsecondary vocational training opportunities in hospitality, food service and health care.   EGTI is housed inside a Courtyard by Marriott. Students reside in the hotel for 10 – 13 weeks as they attend classes, receive hands on training and gain experience though an internship. In addition to work skills, the students are improving their self-confidence, self-determination, soft work skills, problem solving skills, relational skills, and communication skills.

I’m happy to report that the program is working. Graduates are securing jobs with a competitive salary and benefits. We are doing exactly what we set out to do. But the thing that I enjoy the most is getting to know the students and watching them grow in skills and independence.

Zach, the young man from the story I mentioned above, told me this week that what he loves the most about being at EGTI is getting to enjoy the college environment and experience what going to college is like.   He has been taking classes at a local community college, but now he has access to a full college campus.

Leslie was one of our first students. About half way through the program she called her mother and told her to pack up her things because she wasn’t coming home. She learned that she was a “city girl” and she was moving to Indianapolis. She picked Indy in part because of her love of horror movies and Indianapolis hosts an annual horror film convention. She had a choice!

Aaron was working two jobs and still didn’t make enough money to be independent. He recently completed a program in Nutritional Services and is how working at Parkview Hospital full time with benefits. Because of his tremendous work ethic, he had hospitals fighting to hire him!

Larry, a dietetics graduate is working in the cafeteria of an elementary school. His mother told me at graduation that the first few weeks of the program she expected a call every day asking her to come and pick him up because nothing had ever worked before. She never got that call.

So far 22 students have completed the program and 17 are currently enrolled. We’ve had three graduation ceremonies and I haven’t been able to get through any of them without crying.

I can’t help but think of all of the friendships I missed out on because society wasn’t as accepting when I was growing up. I wish I could have gotten to know the Heidis and Jimmys and Sarahs that grew up in my hometown.

So yes, I’m glad I’m old. I’m glad I understand just how important the work of The Arc is and where we would be without all of the incredible chapters of The Arc across this county.

If you’d like to get to know the amazing students attending EGTI, please visit our website at www.erskinegreeninstitute.org and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @ErskineGreen

The Arc Responds to Connecticut Court Ruling on Education and Access for Children with Disabilities

Washington, DC – Recently, Judge Thomas Moukawsher of the Connecticut State Superior Court released a sweeping ruling on school funding that could have dire, negative consequences on students with disabilities, particularly students with intellectual and/or developmental as well as behavioral and emotional disabilities.

The case, Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding v. Rell, was initiated in 2005 and challenged the state constitutionality of Connecticut’s pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade education finance system, claiming that the state was inadequately funding the poorest and lowest- performing districts. Judge Moukawsher held that “Connecticut is defaulting on its constitutional duty” to give all children an adequate education and ordered the state to make far-reaching changes regarding how schools are financed, which students are eligible to graduate from high school, and how teachers are paid and evaluated, among others. The judge noted that the state “has left rich school districts to flourish and poor school districts to flounder,” thereby failing to provide children with a “fair opportunity for an elementary and secondary school education.” Judge Moukawsher did not mandate any particular policies for the state to adopt in light of the ruling – rather, he ordered the attorney general’s office to submit plans within 180 days to solve the problems outlined in the decision.

While this decision may appear to assist vulnerable students in Connecticut, Judge Moukawsher also noted within the decision that children with certain “profound” disabilities be denied a public education, erroneously stating that: “The call is not about whether certain profoundly disabled children are entitled to a ‘free appropriate public education.’ It is about whether schools can decide in an education plan for a covered child that the child has a minimal or no chance for education, and therefore the school should not make expensive, extensive, and ultimately pro-forma efforts…no case holds otherwise, and this means that extensive services are not always required.” The state has appealed the ruling to the Connecticut Supreme Court.

The Arc, a leading national disability organization, and The Arc of Connecticut, released the following statement on the ruling:

“While the disability community has won many important, hard fought battles when it comes to kids with disabilities accessing a free and appropriate public education, this ruling demonstrates we have a long way to go to ensure discrimination in our education system is a distant memory.

“The language of this ruling turns back the clocks on how society places value in the lives of people with disabilities. It ignores all the examples of people with disabilities being told they can’t do this, or won’t be able to do that, who proved the experts wrong. If we followed this narrow view and didn’t invest in the education of all kids, we would be missing out on the contributions every single person can make in their community. I’m glad the state is appealing this ruling, and The Arc of Connecticut will be a leader in making sure that all kids with disabilities are treated fairly under the law,” said Peter Berns, CEO of The Arc.

“This ruling is deeply disturbing on two levels,” said Leslie Simoes, the executive director of The Arc of Connecticut. “First, the court ignored the law. Though it was common to deny an education to children with disabilities in the past, federal law has entitled all children with disabilities- not just some children- to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment for more than 40 years. Attempting to differentiate children deserving of an education by the severity of their disability would be both arbitrary and lead to creating perverse incentives for states.

“Second, I categorically reject the court’s premise that the only way one group of struggling students can progress is to take services away from others who face enormous challenges. Our aim must be to move forward together, not to benefit some by leaving others behind. That is not only illegal, it denies those children their basic human right to live as full members of their community.”

 

The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of over 650 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.

Stakeholders Endorse Lawsuit Challenging the GNETS Program and Hail It as the Brown VS. Board of Education for Students with Disabilities

On August 23, 2016, The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state of Georgia alleging that its treatment and segregation of students with disabilities in the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support Program violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. For years, the Georgia Coalition for Educational Equity has been working vigorously to protect the right of students with disabilities to receive an equal education alongside their non-disabled peers. As members of the Coalition, The Arc of Georgia and The Arc of the United States strongly support this lawsuit.  Read more in the Coalition’s press release here.

Atlanta, Georgia, August 23rd — The Georgia Coalition for Educational Equality (GCEE) strongly supports today’s filing by the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) of a federal lawsuit challenging the illegal segregation and unequal and inferior education provided to the thousands of students with disabilities in Georgia’s Network for Educational and Therapeutic Services (GNETS).  The GCEE is a broad coalition of disability, education, civil rights, juvenile justice, child welfare, self-advocate, and parent organizations advocating for a complete transformation of the GNETS program to provide supports to help all students succeed in their neighborhood schools.

In July 2015, DOJ found that Georgia is illegally segregating students with behavior-related disabilities in the GNETS program, where they are denied opportunities to learn with their peers who are non-disabled and provided inferior educational opportunities.  The GNETS is a statewide network created in 1970 that consists of two dozen centers serving about 5,000 children with at least $70 million in state and federal funds, plus additional locally- and federally-funded services. According to the letter, “[t]he State’s support and development of GNETS has effectively created one placement option for many students with behavior-related disabilities to the exclusion of all others.” The DOJ also found the network’s facilities to be “inferior,” often outdated, and lacking such basic infrastructure as central air conditioning, as well as educational resources such as science labs and libraries, and extracurricular facilities such as gyms and playgrounds. The Atlanta Journal Constitution’s May 2016 investigation found that Georgia’s public schools assign a vastly disproportionate number of black students to “psychoeducational” programs, segregating them not just by disability but also by race. The paper found that 54 percent of students in Georgia’s psychoeducational programs are African-American, compared with 37 percent in all public schools statewide.

“The GCEE has maintained that the Justice Department’s letter of findings created an opportunity for the State to transform their education system into one that supports students in their neighborhood schools. We are disappointed that the State has opted to defend the GNETS rather than work towards the full integration of students with disabilities. The Arc Georgia fully supports this lawsuit and will continue to be involved in the GCEE coalition to ensure the state of Georgia provides a full range of supports for students with behavior-related disabilities in our neighborhood schools,” said Stacey Ramirez, the State Director of The Arc Georgia.

“While we hoped for a voluntary resolution to transform the provision of behavioral-related educational support for students with disabilities and avoid litigation, we strongly support the decision by the Department of Justice to file their lawsuit. The continued segregation of students with disabilities is a shameful and illegal position for the State of Georgia to defend,” said Leslie Lipson, an attorney with the Georgia Advocacy Office, the independent Protection and Advocacy System for people with disabilities in Georgia, a leader in the GCEE.

“Segregating students with disabilities not only is illegal but also leads to poor results,” said Alison Barkoff, Director of Advocacy for the Center for Public Representation in Washington, D.C. and a leader of the GCEE.  “Georgia has a choice: engage in litigation likely to result in a court order to desegregate, or work with the Justice Department and stakeholders to develop a settlement that incorporates best practices and ends illegal and unnecessary segregation of students with disabilities.”

The GCEE hopes that this lawsuit – which seeks to vindicate the right of students with disabilities to an equal education alongside their non-disabled peers – will be the Brown v. Board of Education for Georgia’s students with disabilities.