A federal judge in New Jersey has ruled that Quaker schools are not required to provide services to students with learning disabilities, a decision that could have far-ranging implications for religious schools.

U.S. District Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez said Haddonfield Friends School in Haddonfield, N.J. was exempt from federal and state disability laws, because it was a religious institution.

He found that the small Quaker school had not discriminated against a 10-year-old fourth grader with attention dysfunction and dyslexia who was expelled in January 2014.

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“As a private school with religious affiliation with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and under the control of the Haddonfield Monthly Meeting,” Rodriguez said, the school was exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We’re very disappointed in the judge’s decision,” said Angela Rota, of Cherry Hill, N.J., who filed the suit on behalf of her son Sky, who is now 12. “Haddonfield Friends School won the right to discriminate.”

She said Haddonfield Friends should not be able to claim a “blanket exemption” on religious grounds because the school was not overtly religious, welcomed students from multiple faiths, and made no attempt to convert them.

The school was founded in 1786. “They may have been Quakerly at one time, Rota said, “but they have strayed from their Quakerly ways.”

Amelia Carolla, Rota’s lawyer, said: “Religious exemption has to be looked at carefully, or people are going to be free to discriminate.”

She and Rota say they intend to take the ruling on religious exemption to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.

“We intend to pursue every avenue we can because we don’t want this to happen to another child,” Rota said.

Neither the interim head of Haddonfield Friends nor its lead attorney could be reached for comment.

According to the suit Rota filed in September 2014, Sky began having difficulties in class in 2012-2013, but his parents’ concerns were ignored.

In the fall of 2013, he was evaluated by an outside professional, who found that Sky was a bright child with learning issues, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, difficulties with listening and writing skills and dyslexia.

The expert recommended several approaches to help Sky in the classroom, such as giving him extra time for tests and providing individual and small-group instruction when there were writing exercises.

The suit said that Haddonfield Friends did not provide the recommended assistance and that Sky’s teachers belittled him in class.

When his parents continued to press their concerns, Haddonfield Friends retaliated by expelling him, the suit contends.

Although Rodriguez dismissed the portion of the suit dealing with the discrimination claims under the disabilities laws, the part involving the alleged retaliation will continue in the federal court in New Jersey.

Sky attends the Woodlynde School, a college-preparatory school in Strafford, Pa. that specializes in educating students with learning differences. He blogs about his love for automobiles at SkysCars.com.

Families of students with learning disabilities have brought other suits against Quaker schools. A case is pending in federal court in Philadelphia against the William Penn Charter School in East Falls. A federal suit against Abington Friends School was settled in 2007.

Drew Smith, the executive director of the Friends Council on Education in Philadelphia, said that as is true with public schools, private and Quaker schools are seeing more students who are found to have learning problems.

“Parents’ number-one concern is their kids,” said Smith, who works with 81 Quaker schools across the country. “You always hate to see things in litigation, though it is understandable in some cases.”

Smith, who was the head of New Jersey’s Friends School Mullica Hill for several years, said the religious component of Quaker education becomes relevant in suits over learning disabilities.

“Our understanding broadly is that as religious schools, we have different obligations to our students,” he said. “That sounds cold to say it that way, but that is the case. The sad part of it is in each of these cases the intent was to provide a great educational experience for kids.”

Smith also said that to help meet the needs of the growing number of students with learning difficulties, Quakers have established schools that specialize in educating those students.

© 2016 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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