School Segregation of Special Needs Students

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) requires public schools to develop an Individualized Education Program for every student with a disability who is found to meet the federal and state requirements for special education.  IDEA requires that when an Individualized Education Program team is deciding where a student will receive his or her special education services, the team must first consider placement in the general education classroom before removing the child to a special education class or program.

New Jersey has been notorious for having one of the most segregated special education settings in the country.  New Jersey ranks 1st in the nation when it comes to placing our special needs students in self-contained classrooms for the majority of the day and in public and private special education schools.  Roughly half of all special-needs students are educated outside the general education classroom and one in ten special needs students is educated in an out-of-district school.  In addition, New Jersey ranks as the 5th highest in the nation when classifying its students as disabled.

Earlier this year, federal District Court Judge Mary Little Cooper approved a settlement agreement between a coalition of disability rights advocates and attorneys, including New Jersey Protection and Advocacy, the Education Law Center, the ARC of New Jersey and Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, and the Christie administration.  The agreement brought to close the 2007 federal lawsuit, Disability Rights New Jersey et al. v. New Jersey Department of Education, et al.  The Plaintiffs argued that “children with disabilities in New Jersey schools are not being educated in the least restrictive environment, in violation of IDEA and the New Jersey Special Education Statute.”

The settlement agreement requires “needs assessments” and “corrective plans” for the 75 New Jersey school districts with the highest rates of segregation, both in K-12 programs and preschool, encompassing roughly one-quarter of the state’s school children.  These districts must “determine the impact of their policies, procedures and instructional programs on the placement of students with disabilities.”  The goal of the program is to “inform district actions and address those areas that limit the district’s ability to educate students in less restrictive settings.”  Once the data from a district is collected, the New Jersey Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs staff will meet with the school district’s staff to develop a training and assistance plan.

The Settlement Agreement can be found here.

As the law continues to evolve on these matters, please note that this article is current as of date and time of publication and may not reflect subsequent developments. The content and interpretation of the issues addressed herein is subject to change. Cole Schotz P.C. disclaims any and all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on any or all of the contents of this publication to the fullest extent permitted by law. This is for general informational purposes and does not constitute legal advice or create an attorney-client relationship. Do not act or refrain from acting upon the information contained in this publication without obtaining legal, financial and tax advice. For further information, please do not hesitate to reach out to your firm contact or to any of the attorneys listed in this publication.

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