In 2019, parents of 10 children with disabilities filed suit against the New Jersey Department of Education for taking too long to resolve disputes about how their children should be educated. Now, a federal district judge has ruled that their case could become a class action suit, potentially including an estimated 15,000 families who say students have been harmed over the years by administrative delays.

In his ruling this month, U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman allowed two groups of parents to proceed in class action suits — those asking for the state Department of Education to fix its broken dispute resolution system for current and future students, and one seeking justice for students in past years who were kept waiting too long.

According to a report by the New Jersey Special Education Practitioners, the average time for cases to be resolved was 212 days, as of 2018, while more recently, lawyers said, that has increased to an average of nine months, with about 1,000 families requesting hearings a year.

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Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, disputes between parents and school districts regarding placements of special education students must be resolved in 45 days, not counting adjournments, but the U.S. Department of Education issued a letter in 2019 saying that in the 2016-17 school year, less than 5% of the 1,300 due process complaints were resolved on time in New Jersey.

Of the families in the suit, five had waited more than 300 days for a resolution to their cases, with one waiting 791.

The Department of Education did not respond to a message requesting comment this week.

The judge also appointed John Rue & Associates, a special education law firm headquartered in Princeton, N.J., to represent both classes.

“The NJDOE’s due process system is systematically flawed,” Rue said. “It ignores and routinely violates the 45-day rule—a rule that recognizes time is of the essence when it comes to educating children.”

The shortage of administrative law judges has contributed to the backlog, according to Rue. He added that the Office of Administrative Law, the state agency handling such cases, could not estimate how many more judges would be needed to speed up the cases. And while the state appropriated $6 million in its last budget to address the backlog, that funding will not go specifically to new administrative law judges on special education cases, as originally planned.

Several advocacy organizations have joined in the suit, including SPAN Parent Advocacy Network; Advocates for Children of New Jersey; Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates; Disability Rights New Jersey; Educational Law Center; NJ Special Education Practitioners; and Volunteer Lawyers for Justice.

In an earlier ruling that the case should proceed, Hillman noted that the parents had made “plausible claims” that the system “is profoundly broken and routinely violates the federal laws designed to insure that our most vulnerable children remain the priority we all should agree they are.”

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