NJ Settles Special Education Lawsuit

March 2, 2014 at 10:17 PM

LIVINGSTON, NJ - A federal lawsuit challenging the state Department of Education’s oversight of special education in New Jersey has reached final settlement with a consent agreement that aims to reduce NJ’s high number of special-needs students in segregated settings.

The agreement calls for the state to take measures to insure that the districts with the lowest rates of inclusion, including Livingston, to follow through on remediation plans.
New Jersey has a long history of having the most segregated special education settings in the country, with half of all special-needs students predominately educated outside the general education classroom and one in 10 in separate schools.
Livingston is at the high end of out-of-district placements. Last year, LPS sent approximately 130 students to private and public settings for special education placements. Millburn, which has a similar enrollment as Livingston, sends out just 50 students. In fact, Livingston sends some of the LPS students to Millburn, Summit and New Providence, all public schools for special education.
“Livingston has recognized that out-of-district placement is not always the best option for our students, however, we have been working toward providing, since my first day here, more options in-district to give our parents and students greater choice. The goal is always to try to provide a comprehensive program of instruction for students right here at home,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. John B. Alfieri.
The long-term vision over the next 10 years includes adding programs for life skills, behavioral disabilities, and transitioning. “We are working on reducing those numbers and expect this coming September to have reduced the number of students receiving their education out-of-district to less than 100," Alfieri said.
The addition of a life skills program at Heritage and LHS, and providing for a full Extended School Year (ESY), program are included in the tentative budget under review for 2014-2015. This past September, a Pre-K discrete trial program and social/emotional supports were added for Grades 7-12.
Last March, Livingston residents backed a referendum to build classroom additions and renovate existing space so Livingston Public Schools, can continue to add programs to educate more students with special needs in its own schools. Groundbreaking on this project is expected to happen this coming spring.
“The fact that Livingston was cited in the settlement agreement as being one of the lowest rates of inclusion is based on data from the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 school years,” said Barbara Linkenheimer, interim Assistant Superintendent of Special Services.” The inclusion on the agreement has nothing to do with the audit that was performed last year, which resulted in a corrective action plan for Special Services.”

The Department of Education reached the consent agreement in a federal lawsuit filed seven years ago--Disability Rights New Jersey et al. v. New Jersey Department of Education, et al In 2007. Here, several groups, Disability Rights New Jersey, Education Law Center, Statewide Parent Advocacy Network and the ARC of New Jersey, sued the NJ DOE, Lucille Davy, Commissioner, and the New Jersey State Board of Education. District Court Judge Mary Little Cooper signed the final agreement on February 19.
“The agreement specifically calls for needs assessments and corrective plans for the 75 districts with the lowest rates of inclusion, both in K-12 programs and preschool. The districts, from large to small, encompass about a quarter of the state’s school children,” Linkenheimer said.
Livingston is one of the districts on the list for Pre-School (ages 3-5) and School Aged (ages 6-12) for its low inclusion rate.
During the needs assessment, the district will be required to conduct a data review and analysis. The DOE will conduct classroom observations and interviews with general education teachers, special education teachers, administrators, and parents. 
“We look forward to complying as we all work to make special education stronger and providing our special education students with comprehensive programs in our district,” Linkenheimer said.
Read the “fine print” of the case in NJ Spotlight by clicking here.

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