Last week, the Mississippi Department of Education (MDE) issued a major decision that declared the Jackson Public School District (JPS) in violation of major components of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that ensures all students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate public education. The MDE decision was issued in response to a complaint filed on behalf of students with disabilities by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Disability Rights Mississippi (DRMS) and the Southern Disability Law Center (SDLC). According to the decision, JPS's failure to resolve the IDEA violations could adversely affect its accreditation status.
Before issuing this decision, MDE conducted a thorough investigation of the claims raised in the complaint, including allegations that JPS' unlawful disciplinary policies exclude students with disabilities from the classroom. The complaint describes how JPS has segregated a disproportionate number of JPS students with disabilities in the alternative school--frequently as punishment for behavior that is related to their disabilities. Other students involved in the complaint languish three or four grades behind their peers academically. None of the students described in the complaint received related services (such as counseling), during the 2009-2010 school year, even though federal law requires school districts to provide these interventions. The complaint also details the adverse affect zero-tolerance like disciplinary policies have on JPS students who miss weeks of school as a consequence for violating minor school rules.
According to Jed Oppenheim, Managing Advocate for the Southern Poverty Law Center, "The Mississippi Department of Education affirmed what Jackson Public School students with disabilities and their parents have known for a long time: JPS routinely violates federal law and in doing so, seriously compromises students' chances for success. In order to ensure compliance with federal law, JPS must focus on reforming the harmful zero-tolerance-like policies that have pushed so many bright students out of school."
According to the initial complaint, the majority of JPS students with disabilities have the ability to graduate alongside their peers--so long as they receive the individualized supports and interventions to which they are entitled under federal law. Yet JPS students with disabilities fall quickly behind their peers. Only 7.8% of JPS students with disabilities graduate on time--while the graduation rate for students without disabilities is 59.8%.
According to Wendell Hutchinson, DRMS Attorney, "The Mississippi Department of Education's decision is incredibly important because it brings awareness and confirmation of the Jackson Public School District's systemic failure to provide children with disabilities a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Awareness and confirmation of these violations, as a result of the Mississippi Department of Education's decision, are necessary first steps to ensure children with disabilities receive an appropriate education in the Jackson Public School District."
The MDE decision includes the following conclusions:
•JPS fails to address the emotional concerns of students with disabilities and failed to provide such students with related services that would help them obtain educational benefit;
•JPS unlawfully punishes students for manifestations of their disabilities and fails to provide students with the disciplinary safeguards required by federal law;
•JPS fails to provide students with individualized education plans that provide students with disabilities a free and appropriate education;
•JPS denies students with disabilities appropriate educational services by failing to adequately assess and track their academic progress.
•JPS denies students the services needed to help them transition successfully into adulthood.
•The decision requires JPS to submit an improvement plan to the Mississippi Department of Education before December 22, 2010. According to Jim Comstock Galagan, Director of the Southern Disability Law Center
"Hopefully, JPS will view this decision as an opportunity to immediately reverse course and fully embrace its legal obligations to students with disabilities. We hope to work collaboratively with the district to develop a comprehensive plan that will protect the district's accreditation status and improve the life chances of its students."
Parents of JPS students with disabilities are urged to contact SPLC at 601-948-8882 or DRMS at 601-968-0600 with questions about their children's educational rights.