Disability rights groups sue Success Academy Charter Schools

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Success Academy Chart Schools LogoNew York City’s largest and most influential charter school system is the subject of a new complaint with the Department of Education [PDF], accusing it of violating a range of federal special education laws, particularly in regard to the impact of its harsh discipline practices on students with disabilities.

“The complaint highlights the inappropriate and illegal practices that Success Academy utilizes to achieve so-called ‘success’ and the costs and sacrifices that the students experience in the process,” Raun Rasmussen, executive director of Legal Services NYC, in a news release. “Success Academy operates schools in some of the most distressed neighborhoods of this city and receives considerable public funding but fails to serve students with disabilities in accordance with the law. These children deserve better.”

Success Academy, which enrolls about 11,000 students in NYC, is well-known for its controversial, zero-tolerance approach to student discipline.

The 23-page complaint, filed January 20 by the city’s public advocate and a coalition of disability advocacy groups, details the experiences of 15 children enrolled, or previously enrolled, at the Academy’s 36 institutions. Success Academy allegedly routinely failed to properly identify and evaluate these students, provide them reasonable accommodations, forced them to repeat numerous grade levels, and otherwise coerced them to leave the schools to inflate its achievement data.

The complaint particularly focuses on the school’s disciplinary code, which lists 64 possible violations, including such minor behaviors as “not engaging in learning and not following directions” or “engaging in ‘minor disrespectful behavior’ such as failing to make eye contact, getting out of the student’s seat, and not keeping hands folded in laps,” according to the complaint.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, as well as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, provide a range of due process rights for students with disabilities. Specifically, under IDEA, students may not be suspended for behaviors arising from their disabilities and schools, and schools are required to conduct Manifest Determination Reviews when students are suspended or removed from class for more than 10 school days.

The complaint asserts that Success Academy does not provide these reviews. Moreover, it argues that the schools’ suspension data is misleading because it does not include half-day, as opposed to full-day, suspensions.

The schools also allegedly refuse to provide sufficient notice to either students or parents about their due process rights in suspensions, nor provide notice of the students’ rights to alternative education during the suspension period.

“Pushing out vulnerable students is not how we define success,” said Seymour W. James, attorney with the the Legal Aid Society, in the news release. “The law is clear: publicly funded schools, including charter schools, cannot discriminate on the basis of disability, and must provide federally mandated special education services and due process protections.

“The parents who have come forward in this complaint have seen their children suspended, left back year after year, and pushed out of the Success Academy system. It’s time for the federal government to investigate this gross discrimination.”

Public Advocate Letitia James, NYC Council Education Committee Chairperson Daniel Dromm, Legal Services New York, the Legal Aid Society, the Partnership for Children’s Rights, MFY Legal Services, and the New York Legal Assistance Group are listed as plaintiffs in the complaint.

The writer for this story, Andy Jones, worked as a legal intern for Legal Services NYC during the summer of 2012.