Newark, NJ, February 20, 2014 - Nearly seven years after the lawsuit was filed, and more than five years since the District Court denied the State's motion to dismiss, disability advocates entered into an historic settlement with the New Jersey Department of Education to ensure that New Jersey students with disabilities receive an appropriate education in the "least restrictive environment."
"Countless children with disabilities who were inappropriately segregated and denied their right to an inclusive education will now be educated alongside their peers who do not have disabilities, to the maximum extent appropriate," said attorney David L. Harris of Lowenstein Sandler, which handled the case on a pro bono basis.
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit included Disability Rights New Jersey (DRNJ), the Education Law Center (ELC), the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) and the ARC of New Jersey. Representation was provided by attorneys from DRNJ, ELC and the law firms of Freeman, Carolla, Reisman & Gran, and Todd Wilson, LLC, along with Lowenstein Sandler.
The lawsuit cited New Jersey's failure to implement the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires the provision of a "free and appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment" to all eligible students. The plaintiffs alleged that children were inappropriately and unnecessarily sent out of district and denied in-class aids, services and accommodations needed to receive an appropriate education in the general education classroom.
Joseph Young, Executive Director of DRNJ, commended the settlement, noting that "the benefits of inclusion are vast and include improved language development and reading skills, higher grades, higher scores on standardized tests, larger friendship networks, improved attendance and higher self-esteem."
"Non-disabled children also benefit from inclusion: they perform substantially better in reading and mathematics than their counterparts educated in segregated environments, and they demonstrate social and developmental benefits, including improved understanding and relationships with children with disabilities," said Diana Autin, Executive Co-Director of SPAN. The "win-win" of improved education for all students was also touted by Thomas Baffuto, Executive Director of the ARC, while Judith Gran, Esq., extolled the role of advocates in the Settlement, and Todd Wilson, Esq., pointed approvingly at the provision in the Settlement mandating training of Department of Education staff by a highly qualified independent party.
The Settlement includes:
- a Needs Assessment to be completed by the 75+ school districts with the worst track record in inclusion;
- district site visits by the Department of Education, including classroom observations and staff interviews;
- extensive training and technical assistance for district staff, and regular assessment of the trainings and technical assistance;
- training of state complaint investigators;
- specially designated state and local inclusion facilitators;
- annual compliance monitoring;
- parental input regarding district failures to appropriately include students with disabilities; and
- oversight by a stakeholder committee comprised of disability advocates.
"The advocates are hopeful that this carefully crafted Settlement will result in a vast improvement in New Jersey's placement of children in the least restrictive environment - an area where New Jersey, for decades, has trailed the rest of the nation," said Ruth Lowenkron, Senior Attorney at the Education Law Center. "Inclusion is not only the law, it's what's best for children and it's also more cost-effective in the long-run, and often even in the short-run," Lowenkron added.
The Settlement became effective upon the judge's February 19, 2014 signing of the Order, and implementation will be immediate.
Ruth Deale Lowenkron, Education Law Center, 973-624-1815 x 21
David L. Harris, Lowenstein Sandler, 973-597 2378