Achievement First Pledges To Do Better With Disabled Students
Civil Rights Complaint Said Too Often Students With Disabilities Suspended, Given Demerits
By KATHLEEN MEGAN
June 11, 2013
A new federal civil rights agreement aims to get better and more appropriate services for children with disabilities who have been continually suspended or excluded from class at Achievement First Hartford Academy Middle School for disciplinary reasons.
Maria Morelli-Wolfe, a lawyer with Greater Hartford Legal Aid Inc., which last year filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights on behalf of children with disabilities at the public charter school, said that very often those students spend too many hours out of the classroom — suspended in school or out of school — because of behaviors they weren't necessarily able to control.
"Many, many days, they couldn't catch a break, particularly those kids with disabilities that result in behavioral issues," said Morelli-Wolfe. "They would get caught up in the cycle of the rigid discipline policies of Achievement First and they just couldn't break free of them, sometimes for very small behaviors, even like tapping pencils. … Some of the cases were just heartbreaking."
The complaint filed last year by the legal aid group said that students with disabilities were not getting "a free and appropriate education" because of the academy's "failure to provide accommodations, modifications, and specialized instruction" as required under state and federal law.
Morelli-Wolfe said it's "discriminatory" for the academy to exclude students from the classroom because of behaviors related to a disability.
As part of its agreement with the Office for Civil Rights, Achievement First has promised to train staff not only in the federal education requirements for disabled students, but in the characteristics of disabilities such as autism, mood disorders, attention deficit disorder, and childhood trauma. It has also agreed to develop a centralized data system to track removal of disabled students from classrooms.
Jeff House, principal at Achievement First Hartford Academy Middle School, said in an e-mailed statement: "[W]e recognize that during the founding years of our school we have struggled at times to develop services to best support some of our most challenged students. We have worked to support all of our students, with and without disabilities, in good faith, but nonetheless we recognize that there are times where we have fallen short and students' academic experience has suffered as a result."
House said the academy has been "working proactively to improve special education and other services for students with special needs, including making changes in many of the areas identified in our agreement … even before this process was initiated."
House said, however, that on average, the academy students with disabilities are "not only out-performing Hartford students with disabilities, they are outperforming the general Hartford student population."
The agreement, which was released Monday, comes less than a week after the release of a report from the state Department of Education that showed that Achievement First charter schools have among the highest rates of suspension or expulsion in the state for all students, not just those with disabilities.
The report said that 49.4 percent of the students at Achievement First Hartford Academy Middle School had received at least one in-school or out-of-school suspension or expulsion — the highest percentage noted in the state report.
Johanna Rodriguez, whose eighth-grade son was included in the civil rights complaint, said her son was suspended and at home for most of last year, while this year she said he was suspended in school most of the time in a room set aside for students who are removed from class because of a behavior issue.
For lesser offenses, he was given "re-orientation" where he could remain in class, but had to wear a white shirt and other students were not allowed to talk to him.
Rodriguez said she got called "just about every day" and told that her son was being removed from class because he had been fidgeting or not promptly carrying out directions or talking to himself or humming in class.
She said her son has a variety of disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and other problem behaviors. She said she warned Achievement First before her son enrolled in the sixth grade. "I told them he's a handful," Rodriguez said. She said she asked "Are you sure you can handle him?"
Over the past two years, she said, the academy had promised special accommodations for her son in various ways but didn't follow through.
According to the complaint filed by the Greater Hartford Legal Aid, Achievement First has a "no excuses" philosophy that says, "We must refuse to make excuses for our students because of their prior education, their family situation, their community, or other potential excuses."
The complaint said that "based on our experiences with Achievement First, learning, emotional or behavioral disabilities are often viewed as just another 'potential excuse.'"
Morelli-Wolfe said that with the steps planned by Achievement First, she hopes, "the staff will become better able to identify those students, and more sensitive and flexible in their approach to them … A disability isn't an excuse, it's a real thing. Kids don't have control of these behaviors and they are still worthy of a good education."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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