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A New Class Action Lawsuit Says Kids With Disabilities Are Segregated in New York City


KATIE ANASTAS, HOST: Kids with disabilities, from autism to blindness to bipolar disorder, are struggling with distance learning during the pandemic. But a new federal class action lawsuit alleges that New York City’s special education system was troublesome far before Covid-19. It challenges what the complaint calls the “segregated school system for students with disabilities on Staten Island.” Nicole McNulty has the story.

NICOLE MCNULTY, BYLINE: New York is one of the only cities in the country with a separate system for kids with disabilities. District 75. Mary Hansen’s daughter, Julianna, has cerebral palsy and learning disabilities. Hansen said when was in Kindergarten, her principal said she would be better off at a District 75 school. Hansen says removing Julianna from her neighborhood school would stop her from reaching her full potential.

MARY HANSEN: Why is it detrimental? Children with disabilities are not seen. They’re put away. They’re not part of society.

MCNULTY: There are 25,000 kids in this district and many are bused two hours to go to schools across the city. Julianna’s ride would have been half an hour but her mom refused to send her.

HANSEN: Why should she have to leave her zoned school which is literally a five minute walk to get on a bus to go to a school that provides services when her school should be able to provide the services? That’s not equality.

MCNULTY: That’s what the new lawsuit filed in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of three Staten Island students argues, too. Lewis Bossing is with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law. He’s one of the lawyers arguing the case.

LEWIS BOSSING: District 75 students are unnecessarily segregated. Their days are completely separate. They may go into a separate entrance. They may be in a trailer behind the main building.

MCNULTY: Bossing says research shows kids with disabilities learn more in integrated settings. He says kids in this district don’t have access to the same electives, sports or clubs as other students. He says that violates their civil rights and three federal laws. According to the IDEA Act passed in 1975, if a child can be taught in a general education setting, they should be. A couple decades later the Supreme Court ruled segregating people with disabilities unnecessarily is a form of discrimination.

BOSSING: Can you actually get a free and appropriate public education in a segregated setting where you have no interaction with other students without disabilities, no chance to learn from your peers, peers who may model appropriate kinds of social skills or self-regulation skills?

MCNULTY: Bossing and other lawyers arguing the case are asking the Department of Education to give more resources to community schools. So, if a parent chooses to send their kid to their local school, they would get their therapies. Bossing says they chose Staten Island because if it works there, it could work in the rest of the city. But Anne Marie Kanable says the separate system works for her son, Dane, a 12 year old with Down Syndrome. She says he thrives in his small, contained classes. Academically, he couldn’t keep up with his non-disabled peers.

ANNE MARIE KANABLE: The children are all on the same wavelength.

MCNULTY: The Department of Education said in a written statement that District 75 provides high quality learning environments for students with disabilities in the least restrictive setting appropriate and that it is reviewing the suit. A judge now needs to decide if other families can join the lawsuit. Nicole McNulty, Columbia Radio News.


CORRECTION: In the audio of this story and in the previous web version, we did not include reference to a statement we received from the Department of Education noting its view of District 75 and the lawsuit. In the statement the Department Education says District 75 provides high quality learning environments for students with disabilities and that it is reviewing the suit. It has since been updated to include the written statement.


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