Reparations debate: Mending the past, forging the future
Schools say the move can be necessary to keep students and teachers safe and prevent disturbances. But parents and advocates argue the shortened days, often referred to as informal removals, amount to discrimination and violations of students civil rights. Under federal law, it is illegal to bar a child from receiving the same education as their peers based on conditions stemming from their disability.
Ms. Warne sued her daughters school and school district this month, alleging disability discrimination. School officials did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuit. In an earlier email, the school director said she couldnt comment on individual students because of privacy concerns.
In Oregon, a clash between parents and schools culminated this spring at the Statehouse. A bill to curb the use of shortened days, essentially giving parents veto power over such a decision, is pending in the House of Representatives after near-unanimous passage in the Senate. Pressure from school boards and superintendents has hurt the legislations chances, its chief sponsor said.
It shouldnt have been controversial because these kids have had this right for such a long time, Democratic state Sen. Sara Gelser Blouin said of her bill. I wish that we could serve these kids, respect these kids and lift these kids up and honor their rights without being ordered by a court to do so.
Dan Stewart, managing attorney for education and employment at the National Disability Rights Network, said he wasnt aware of other states with laws limiting schools use of shortened days as Oregons bill would have. But a number of states have issued guidance through their departments of education informing schools that shortened days could potentially amount to discrimination under federal law.
Since the 1970s, federal law has guaranteed students with disabilities the right to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. This means, as much as possible, they should be learning alongside their peers who dont have disabilities, with necessary accommodations. Its illegal for school districts to cite a lack of money or staff as a reason for not educating a child with disabilities.
But states dont always enforce the law, advocates say. Instead of hiring specialists, training teachers, or providing tailored services, they say, some schools are shortening students schedules as a way to manage difficult behavior.
Oregon is embroiled in a lawsuit over schools use of shortened school days, filed by the nonprofit advocacy group Disability Rights Oregon in 2019. Experts appointed by the court to research the issue found about 1,000 Oregon students with disabilities most of them in elementary school are on shortened schedules.
While less than 2% of students in special education are placed on a shortened school day, for those students and their families, this amounted to often a dramatic decrease in the amount of instruction received, a loss of opportunities for interaction with peers, and an educational program that put them in a position to lag further and further behind their peers in both academic and social emotional skills, the experts report said.
This spring, in the debate over the bill, teachers’ unions said a lack of specialized training and a post-pandemic crisis in student mental health were putting them in harms way and disrupting classrooms.
Education employees are reporting frequent injuries caused by students, and yet they are provided with limited training and scarce options to protect themselves from harm, wrote Susan Allen of the Oregon School Employees Association.
But schools receive federal and state money for kids with disabilities that they should use for training and staffing, advocates say.
Resource allocation is a decision, and school districts have decided not to invest, said Meghan Moyer, public policy director for the nonprofit advocacy organization Disability Rights Oregon.
For some Oregon families, the bills stalling is only their latest setback.
Another parent in Grants Pass, Chelsea Rasmussen, has been fighting for more than a year for her 8-year-old daughter Scarlett to attend full days at school.
Scarlett reads at her grade level, but is nonverbal and uses an electronic device and online videos to communicate. She has seizures and difficulty eating and digesting food. Because of her medical needs, the school must have a resident nurse on site.
After the pandemic, Scarletts mother agreed to start her on a three-day school week to ease her into in-person learning for the first time. But it took months of meetings to bump her up to five days a week, Ms. Rasmussen said. School employees, she said, told her the district lacked the staff to tend to Scarletts medical and educational needs at school.
Officials at the school system attended by Scarlett, Grants Pass School District 7, said staffing was not a factor in her case.
We try not to shorten days for students with special needs, said Vanessa Jones, the districts director of special services. Its a team decision and we use it as sparingly as we can.
At home, Scarlett kept showing her mom online videos of children playing or Sesame Street lessons. She longed to be at school, her mother said.
We wasted a year with a child that could do grade-level work, Ms. Rasmussen said.
She plans to continue speaking out both for Scarlett and other families struggling with the same issue.
How can you not allow a child to have an education? she said. We dont feel like we should have to fight that hard for a student to feel like they belong.
This story was reported by The Associated Press.
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