Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Equality in Schools

To all men of good will, this decision came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of human captivity. It came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of colored people throughout the world who had had a dim vision of the promised land of freedom and justice… this decision came as a legal and sociological deathblow to an evil that had occupied the throne of American life for several decades.
— Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking in 1956 at an annual luncheon of the National Committee for Rural Schools, reflecting on the importance of Brown v. Board of Education

By Regina Skyer

The laws that govern special education in our country are inextricably linked to the Civil Rights Movement. It is befitting that on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day we acknowledge this link and express our gratitude for the impact that the civil rights movement continues to have in advancing the rights of children with disabilities in our school system.

Maybe you have heard the phrase, “Equal justice under law”? It is inscribed over the doors of the U.S. Supreme Court and comes from the Equal Protection Clause. It was enacted in 1868 as an effort to validate the equality provisions of the Civil Rights Act, the legislative culmination of the end of the Civil War and by extension, of slavery.

It was this idea, of equal justice under law, which served as the basis for the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education, which, in rejecting the “separate but equal” doctrine that had upheld racial segregation in our nation’s schools, heralded the binding principle that in education separate is not equal.

The spark of excitement that the legal victory in Brown inspired could have turned to disillusionment when many school districts made it clear they had no intention of following the Court’s ruling. Instead, that spark caught fire and civil rights leaders like Dr. King made school desegregation a cornerstone demand of the new civil rights movement. 

In the ruling for Brown, the Court wrote, “In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education.” It is easy to see how this declaration, the principle of “separate is not equal,” and the front-page example of the hope, spirit, and struggle of this historic social movement taking on institutional racism, inspired parents and attorneys of disabled children. It was only after the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Brown that suing school districts for excluding or segregating children with disabilities was undertaken as a legal strategy.

Brown and the civil rights movement’s battle for desegregation paved the way for the law we know as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), upon which all rights for special education students are based. On this day that we remember Dr. King, let us not forget this enduring contribution.

Supreme Court to Decide How Much Educational Benefit a School District Must Provide in Special Ed

Attorneys from The Law Offices of Regina Skyer & Associates, L.L.P. traveled to Washington D.C. on Jan. 11, 2017 to hear oral arguments in Endrew v. Douglas County School District. Pictured on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court from left to right: Linda Goldman, Abbie Smith, Diana Gersten, Jesse Cutler, and Greg Cangiano.

Attorneys from The Law Offices of Regina Skyer & Associates, L.L.P. traveled to Washington D.C. on Jan. 11, 2017 to hear oral arguments in Endrew v. Douglas County School District. Pictured on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court from left to right: Linda Goldman, Abbie Smith, Diana Gersten, Jesse Cutler, and Greg Cangiano.

On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case concerns a fourth grade student with autism named Endrew F., whose parents enrolled him in a private school specializing in autism for which they sought reimbursement from their school district in Colorado. The district argued that they shouldn’t have to pay because in his prior public school program Endrew had made “some” educational progress. The parents’ attorneys argued that Endrew was entitled to a “meaningful” educational benefit. 

Courts throughout the country are divided on how much benefit must be offered in order for a school district to satisfy the requirements of providing a child a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). For example, in the Second Circuit (Connecticut, New York and Vermont), school districts are required to offer a program that is likely to result in a benefit that is “more than merely trivial.” Now the Supreme Court is grappling with this critical issue.

We believe that Endrew F. is the most important special education case to come before the Supreme Court in over twenty-five years. Its outcome will have an enormous impact on every one of our clients.

Five senior attorneys from our office traveled to Washington, D.C. to listen to the oral arguments. The courtroom was crowded with parent and school district attorneys from all over the country. We sat near the petitioners, Endrew’s mother and father, and their presence by our side served as a constant reminder of our own clients back in New York for whom the outcome of this decision is so personal.

The debate between the attorneys was lively. The Solicitor General spoke on behalf of the U.S.  Department of Education and, as he had articulated in the administration’s amicus brief, asked the Court to rule in favor of a higher standard than the Colorado school district was defending. The Justices asked questions of both sides, with a clear focus on how to set forth a clear standard for all students, regardless of the severity of their disability. 

Justice Alito distilled the core issue: that the court needs to find the perfect word with the right nuance to define the level of benefit required. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joked about the need to come up with a standard that doesn’t require musical notation or the proper intonation (“some” versus “some”).

Reading the tea leaves is difficult, but we are cautiously optimistic. We left feeling that the Court will set forth a standard that is easier to understand and apply, and one that is likely to hold school districts to a higher standard than what exists now.

For more information, please see the U.S. Supreme Court’s written transcript of the oral arguments of January 11th. Audio transcripts are posted on this page when they become available.

High school students with IEPs are being denied life-changing Career and Technical Education (CTE) opportunities

Students with disabilities have graduation rates that seriously lag behind general education students. In 2015, 83.1% of general education students graduated, but only 49.8% of students with IEPs did. No one has a magic bullet for fixing this, but Advocates for Children’s latest report, Obstacles and Opportunities, reveals that Career and Technical Education (CTE) may boost graduation rates for some of our students.

One of the reasons that students don’t graduate is struggling with the State’s graduation exams, and CTE provides a promising new pathway for graduation. As of 2015, NYS now allows a student who successfully completes a CTE program and earns a passing score on its assessment exam to forgo a fifth Regent exam. This is commonly referred to as the “4+1” option.

CTE may also be beneficial for students with disabilities because many of its programs are compatible with so-called “active teaching strategies” that incorporate movement, repetition, and other strategies or modes of learning that work better for some kids with developmental disabilities and learning disabilities. CTE has a wide range of disciplines (over 400 programs) that appeal to a variety of interests and skills in such fields and trades as culinary arts, automotive repair, web design, computer science and technology, carpentry, and more; so a student with a special interest may be more motivated to succeed in one of these programs.

Finally, CTE students gain hands-on career-building skills and may have access to internships, mentorships, and job shadowing. So, in addition to boosting matriculation rates, “students with disabilities who successfully pursue CTE are more likely to experience improved prospects for employment, earnings, and overall economic success,” according to the report’s findings. 

Unfortunately, because of changes in the overall job market, enrollment in these specialized CTE programs has become much more competitive. Advocates for Children found that students with disabilities were significantly underrepresented in CTE programs. Some of the many reasons for this, they said, include a lack of awareness among IEP teams about CTE opportunities and a parallel lack of awareness and training among CTE program staff about the diverse abilities of students with disabilities and how to accommodate and integrate them.

A frustrating catch-22 for students struggling with the Regents, who might particularly benefit from the 4+1 option, is that Advocates for Children found that many schools “restrict students from participating in CTE if they have not met Regents exam benchmarks.” Students themselves may also decide against enrolling in a CTE program if they are struggling to prepare for the Regents exams. According to the report, “students trying to fulfill these testing requirements while simultaneously pursuing CTE coursework may feel overwhelmed and forced to make decisions that may not be in their best long-term educational or career interests.” And while the opportunity to take advantage of the 4+1 option is compelling, only a few dozen of the over 400 CTE programs are currently approved as 4+1 options throughout New York State.

If you have a child in high school or who is approaching the high school age, it is well worth your time to read Obstacles and Opportunities in full. You can also find out more about CTE programming on the NYC Department of Education’s Career and Technical Education (CTE) webpage

An Important Reminder for Parents of Children Born in 2012: The NYC Kindergarten Registration Deadline is Friday, January 13th

Last fall, the NYC Department of Education’s Special Education Office sent out an important letter to parents of children who will be “turning five” during the 2017 calendar year, and who are expected to enter kindergarten in September, 2017. 

That letter clarified that the parents of all children turning five, including those with IEPs, must apply to kindergarten through the NYC application process.  This obligation applies regardless of whether you feel that your child’s needs could ever be met in your local public school.
Applications for kindergarten are now open and close on January 13th, 2017.  Parents can apply in one of 3 ways:

  1. Apply online at schools.nyc.gov/ApplyOnline
  2. Apply over the phone by calling 718-935-2400 (M-F, 8 am – 6 pm)
  3. Apply in person at a Family Welcome Center (see schools.nyc.gov/WelcomeCenters for locations and hours)

Despite the fact that the kindergarten placement process is different for children with IEPs, this DOE letter makes it very clear that parents of children who receive special education services through the CPSE are required to participate in the regular NYC kindergarten application process.

If you did not receive a letter on this topic from the Department of Education, it is still important to be an active participant in the kindergarten application process.  For important updates and more information regarding the transition to kindergarten for special education students, please visit schools.nyc.gov/Academics/SpecialEducation/AcrossGrades/Kindergarten.

Life After the IEP: Transitioning to College (Part 2)

by Linda Goldman

There are many considerations that come into play when deciding what to look for in a college. In Part 1 of Life After the IEP: Transitioning to College, we addressed some preliminary matters, such as the documentation that colleges need in order to provide your son or daughter with academic and learning support. But there are also practical considerations that must be addressed by a prospective college student and their family.

All young adults transitioning to college confront new challenges, and there are certain foundational skills that are essential for a successful transition. If your son or daughter has indicated that they would like to live away from home in a college dormitory, it is incumbent upon you, as parents, to assess whether they have developed sufficient self-management skills to live independently.  

The kinds of pre-requisite independent living skills to think about as you undertake this assessment include good personal hygiene, knowledge of how to handle basic finances, self-advocacy skills, living skills like the ability to do laundry, organizational skills sufficient to manage college coursework, the ability to comply with a schedule, time management techniques, awareness of dietary and nutritional issues, flexibility and adaptability, understanding of basic health issues including the ability to take medication independently and recognize when they need urgent care, the ability to travel independently, self-regulation skills, and finally the ability to manage emotions, particularly anxiety.  It is also important for parents to be in a position to determine, ideally with the help of high school guidance and counseling personnel, whether the student will be able to negotiate and manage the more complex social relationships that they will encounter in a college setting in a mature and healthy way—and without the more restrictive types of supports and interventions that the student might otherwise be accustomed to.  

In identifying potentially appropriate colleges, it is prudent to consider, along with the costs, factors including the distance from home, the size of the school, the academic difficulty of the classes, and the student's interests and whether the school offers classes, programs, and majors in those areas.  

Families should also consider what kind of college program is most appropriate. Some students start out at a community college, or two-year program, earn an associate degree and then transfer; others go straight to a four-year college or university; and there are still others who elect to take a gap year—an increasingly popular option.    

Families should always poke around a college’s website and call to find out what programs they offer students with disabilities. The level of supports that are available is an important indicator of how that college treats its students, and it speaks volumes about its philosophy regarding those who learn differently. 

One book that might be useful to students with learning disabilities, autism, or ADHD who are beginning their college search is The K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences, 13th Edition: 353 Schools with Programs or Services for Students with ADHD, ASD, or Learning Disabilities (College Admissions Guides), published by the Princeton Review.
Visit potential colleges more than once, ask as many questions as possible, speak to administrators, faculty, current students, and, (of course) attend all tours and open houses. Knowledge is power!