By John Finnerty
CNHI Harrisburg Correspondent
A group that fights for the rights of special needs students announced Wednesday that it has filed a complaint asking the Department of Justice to intervene due to Pennsylvania’s inability or unwillingness to stop schools from parking disabled students in alternative education classes.
The Education Law Center found that in of 82 Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts special needs students represented more than half the students placed in alternative education classes – settings that are supposed to be used to discipline students for violating school rules. In a few cases, the alternative education class consisted of a single special needs student, data compiled by the Education Law Center shows.
According to the law center, 80 percent of students in alternative education in Grove City Area School District are identified as special needs students. The center used Department of Education data from the 2010-11 school year. In Sharon, 48 percent of students in alt ed were special needs; in Hermitage, 36 percent; in Farrell and Lakeview, 24 percent; and in Sharpsville, 20 percent.
The complaint, however, does not target local school districts, focusing rather on the Department of Education’s ongoing failure to correct problems that advocates have documented and complained about for years, said Nancy Potter, a staff attorney in the Pittsburgh office of the Education Law Center.
Staff at the Department of Education are reviewing the complaint, said spokesman Tim Eller, declining further comment.
In filing the complaint, the law center is asking the Department of Justice to investigate and ultimately force the state to correct the problems, Potter said.
Potter noted that the day the complaint was announced, a special education funding commission was holding a hearing on the problems stemming from the state’s lack of adequate funding for special education services. Earlier this year, when the funding commission was formed, lawmakers estimated that the state was underfunding special education costs to the tune of $1 million per school district. That financial pressure may be at play when districts opt to warehouse special needs students in alternative education rather than provide them with appropriate services, said Debbie Detrich of the Blair County Association for Citizens with Learning Disabilities advocates for disabled students across the Commonwealth. Detrich said she has seen more problems with inappropriate use of alternative education.
Detrich said she could think of one school district in particular that she believes is warehousing students with special needs in alternative education. She declined to identify that district.
Detrich said that the issue arises when it comes to dealing with students with emotional and behavioral issues. A special needs student who violates a school rule because of his or her disability is not supposed to be punished because of it, she said. However, in practice, more and more schools are doing so.
“It’s only going to get worse with the current political situation,” Detrich said, pointing to concerns about school funding.
Jennifer Zufall, executive director of the Arc in Cambria County, said that the issues raised by the Education Law Center are no surprise.
“It’s something that needs to be looked at,” Zufall said. “There is a breakdown in special education and that’s why kids are ending up in alternative education.”
Data show that the issue is scattered across the state, with some schools placing few students in alternative education.
Ed Coup, executive director at the Arc in Sunbury, said he has not heard any complaints from parents about the issue. Coup said parents may be bypassing the local Arc chapter to seek advice from the state office. But data provided by the law center shows that schools in Northumberland County have comparably low rates of special needs students in alternative education.
In 2009, staff from the Education Law Center testified before a Senate committee on the problem. In that testimony, the law center’s staff noted that disabled students represented 43 percent of the students in alt ed, and were reported to alternative education at three times the rate of students in general.
The testimony also included a quote the law center attributed to a Somerset County student describing conditions in alternative education: “The students are allowed to sleep. Generally, they are a dumping ground for schools when they don't want to deal with kids.”