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Impromptu School Transfers Halted Under Agreement

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A federal judge signed off this week on a settlement that formally ends the Philadelphia School District’s policy of transferring elementary students with autism from school to school with no warning to their families.

The settlement came as a result of a class-action lawsuit filed three years ago by parents frustrated by the policy, known by families as “the autism shuffle.” The parents, who all had second graders, were represented by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

The terms of the settlement require the district to notify parents by January if their child could be transferred to a new school that fall. Officials would have to disclose the new school, if known, and inform parents of their right to meet formally with school officials about the transition.

Teachers will also be notified that their students could be transferred.

The district will also have to produce official transfer letters by June and publish lists of all of its so-called autistic-support classrooms. Such lists were not made public in the past.

Sharon Romero’s son Joshua, now 11, was among the named plaintiffs.

Earlier this week, Romero told U.S. District Judge Legrome Davis that she was “extremely happy” with the settlement.

“It’s not only my child, but so many children who are going to benefit,” Romero said.

Before the lawsuit was filed, Romero said, she did not know how to explain to Joshua that change might happen at any time. Transitions are especially difficult for people with autism.

“I felt terrible for my child,” she said. “I didn’t know where he would go, or what to do, or who to talk to.”

Davis commended both sides, saying the settlement was a “well-crafted and fair compromise” that gives families and schools the opportunity to plan for transitions.

The district, which has as many as 3,000 students with autism, had maintained the policy was necessary. Some of its schools are ill-equipped to educate children with autism at every grade level. Some schools, for example, have autistic-support classes for lower grades but not higher grades.

The settlement, which Davis said he would sign by the end of Thursday, carries broad implications. The transfer policy now affects all students on the spectrum. Autism diagnoses are on the rise nationwide.

District parent Cathy Roccia-Meier said that the old policy was devastating to children, who “felt abandoned as they moved from school to school.”

She is thrilled by the new policy, Roccia-Meier said.

“I think,” Roccia-Meier said, “this will make a big change.”

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Comments (4 Responses)

  1. ivysilence says:

    this happened to both my kids. it was the early grades- k-6, and we missed out on all the social pieces, like having friends, other kids to play with, the local routine, and neighbors who know you. Even though we have nieghbors with same age kids we did not go to the local school so we barely know each other. now that they are in high school/middle school the isolation is even deeper. they are without a peer group to move through school yrs with. yet alot of times its the social stuff that the kids struggle with the most, especially into adulthood. I’ll never understand why schools want to remove kids from other kids.

  2. Tom says:

    What if school districts sent notice to parents to confirm that the “shuffle” is a change of location but not the programs and services? Can they get off the hooks by doing that? Sure, autism shuffle can make it hard for many individuals with autism. But what can parents do if it is merely a change of location?

    I am just curious. Forgive me.

    Best,

    Parent

  3. Sarah says:

    This “autism shuffle” is discriminatory. Students without disabilities are not forced to shuffle randomly from school to school. Students without disabilities are allowed to become part of a school community and remain part of that community year after year. Students with and without disabilities need to “belong” to a community in order to understand community and all that it implies. When one group of kids is targeted for shuffling solely because of their disability, the unspoken “lesson” to kids who are allowed to stay is that “those kids” (the ones with disabilities) “don’t belong at OUR school.” In effect, the educational message is that only some kids count.

  4. Lela says:

    This is probably because things are set up a little different where I am, but, isn’t it illegal under IDEA to move kids around without an IEP meeting, which includes the parents? I suppose this is the law they sued under, but this sounds like it was happening and people were just at their mercy. I am in Louisiana and here, a child MUST attend their district school – that school cannot chose to just move them.

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