Lawsuit claims special needs kids not getting proper education during pandemic
Nearly seven million American children with disabilities are trying to
navigate school during the pandemic.
The consequences for some
can be devastating. And a new lawsuit is raising questions about whether or not
their civil rights are being violated.
The mother of Grady
Witkowski, a 10-year-old boy with Down Syndrome from Orange County, says her
son isn’t getting the services he needs. She says a virtual return to school
this fall has left her son without the one-on-one services he's legally
entitled to. "At
this point he has zero access to his education…we're seeing regression."
The family created a video
that in which they say their pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
Other families across the
tri-state in a similar situation are trying out a different approach and
are taking their the fight
to federal court.
“We had testimonials from parents being sent to the district, and it was being ignored.” Before the pandemic, Dustin Tobacco's mom says her
teenage son with Austim was thriving at his Middletown,
New Jersey school district. ”He was doing so well. He was
playing football. He was on the wrestling team.” But without any in-person
instruction, she says five years of progress, unraveled in less than five
months. “To see
behaviors emerge that we haven't seen in so long, it's heartbreaking.”
So she signed onto a
class-action lawsuit alleging school districts nationwide are illegally denying
services to special needs children that are federally mandated, through
individualized education programs, known as IEPs.
It's also the first legal
challenge in the nation to demand what's called a “pendency voucher,” which would provide funding for families to
hire private aides in school districts not yet open full-time.
City attorney Patrick Donohue, whose own daughter has a traumatic brain
injury, says the suit began with a few families across New York and New Jersey.
But then horror stories started pouring in from across the country. “One parent
is a single mom who has two autistic children, she had to quit her job…It's really pulled back the scab of
what millions of families go through every year. And it's insane that you have
a federal law that's supposed to protect them, but
they're basically ignoring the rights of these families.”
there are 500
plaintiffs from 35 states, including 214 from New York, 48 from New Jersey and
18 from Connecticut. “Towards
students with disabilities that there is an overall opinion among a lot people
that they matter less. And I think that the pandemic and the closure shed light
on that. I think it shed light on a lot of discrimination and bigotry that
exists in the educational systems,” says Donohue.
The Connecticut State
Department of Education responded, "There has been no alleviation of
idea (individuals with Disabilities Education Act) requirements during the
pandemic, however there are inherent challenges that exist in the implementation
and delivery of services within the context of public health mandates."
The New York State Education
Department mandates each school district "must
address the provision of FAPE (free appropriate public education) consistent
with the need to protect the health and safety of students with disabilities
and those providing special education and services.”
However, special education
teachers have expressed concerns to News 12 that the physical connection
required during their sessions leaves them at risk.
balance their concern over the possibility of infection against the certainty
that their children are being left behind during each passing day.