Settlement reached in long-running New Jersey special education case

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Special Education settlement

After seven years of litigation and negotiations, a federal court signed off on a settlement February 20 with the New Jersey Department of Education and a group of disability advocates to overhaul the state’s special education practices.

In June 2007, Disability Rights New Jersey, the Education Law Center, the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network and the ARC of New Jersey filed a class-action lawsuit against the state in the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey.

Specifically, the advocacy groups argued that the state was systematically failing to provide these students a “free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment,” in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

When the lawsuit was filed, the percentage of special education students in New Jersey attending school in “segregated placements” stood at 9.6 percent, by far the highest in the country and more than double the national average of 4 percent.

“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, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in a news release.

The settlement requires the state to conduct a Needs Assessment of more than 75 school districts across the state: the districts with the worst records on inclusion.

In addition, the state must provide training to district personnel, conduct annual compliance monitoring and create a committee, made up of disability advocates, to oversee the the settlement’s implementation.

“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 restrict 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, in the news release. “Inclusion is not only the law, its what’s best for children and its also more cost-effective in the long-run, and often even in the short-run.”

Disability Rights New Jersey is the federally funded protection and advocacy system in New Jersey, and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.