Complaint: Early Dismissal Shortchanging Students In Special Ed
PORTLAND, Ore. — Portland Public Schools is discriminating against students in special education by loading them onto school buses five to 15 minutes before school ends and costing them hours of classroom time over the course of an academic year, according to a federal civil rights complaint now under review.
The filing comes months after the nearby Beaverton School District faced a similar complaint and changed its policies.
“I was shocked that it is still going on. I figured that once it became known what happened with Beaverton, other districts would follow suit and correct their discriminatory behavior,” attorney Diane Wiscarson, who filed both complaints, told The Oregonian/OregonLive. “It’s not like it is gray and you could see it one way and I could see it another way. It’s discriminatory and it’s not allowed.”
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While one student is at the center of the complaint, the document alleges widespread and systemic problems in Oregon’s largest school district. The complaint documents 22 schools — 12 elementary schools, six middle schools and four high schools — where students in special education were observed being loaded onto buses before the last bell.
Federal law says students in special education are entitled to a “free and appropriate education.” But over time, students pulled out early lose out on instruction time. A dismissal five minutes early adds up to 15 hours less of an education a year. At 10 minutes, the loss grows to 30 hours.
In some instances, Wiscarson said, students in special education may have a general education class last, meaning they’re being yanked out of a class while it goes on without them.
There’s a stigma associated with having to leave early, the complaint says. Wiscarson also said the practice robs students in special education of key social time after school. Many students’ education plans ask them to improve social skills, something that’s more difficult if they’re walled from their school’s social rhythms, Wiscarson said.
Wiscarson acknowledges that in some instances students may need to leave class early. But she said that’s up to their individualized education programs. Special education is supposed to be tailored for each student, she said, and systematically putting students who don’t need early dismissal on buses violates that.
Portland Public Schools spokeswoman Courtney Westling said the district has a legal obligation, “to provide students with disabilities with the same length of school day as provided to non-disabled peers” unless the student has an educational need for a reduced school day.
“We have specifically communicated that policy to school staff in the past and will be doing so again in the near future,” Westling said.
Some parents didn’t even know their children were leaving class before school had actually ended. Wiscarson said the district wasn’t telling them.
Vanessa Smith, whose child is named in the complaint, was one of those parents.
“When I found out he was getting on the bus early pretty much daily it was like the cherry on top of the cake. It was like, ‘OK, you’re not giving him what he needs for the most part and now you’re going to dismiss him from school without my knowledge?’ That’s not a free and appropriate public education,” Smith said. “For all I know, from fourth to eighth grade, he’s been missing 15 minutes of education a day, and that adds up especially when you have a disability.”
In Beaverton, the matter was settled and an investigation from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights wasn’t needed, Wiscarson said. But change took time. The district had to reroute buses.
She expects the situation in Portland to unfold similarly.
But Wiscarson said it was maddening she had to point out the problem first.
She said she happened on the issue because of her specialty in special education law, which often requires after-school meetings about students’ IEPs.
She usually shows up for those meetings before the last bell to avoid the dismissal chaos. That’s when she noticed special education buses leaving before school had ended.
“I just don’t know why this occurs and it occurs all over the country,” Wiscarson said. “Everybody knows this is going on and everybody knows this is wrong and nobody is fixing it.”
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