Newark Special Ed Settlement, A Decade in the Details

John Mooney | February 1, 2012 | Education
With an agreement in place, the real work of honoring promises begins

Ten years in the courts and with some of its original plaintiffs long out of school, a federal lawsuit contending that Newark effectively cheated thousands of students of special education services has been settled — with promises all around.

But the agreement finalized last week in U.S. District Court between the district, the Christie administration, and the plaintiff families may be more a beginning than an ending, since now the tough work starts in making those promises stick.

“Is this finally the end?” said Ruth Lowenkron, an attorney with the Newark-based Education Law Center who helped first bring the case in 2001. “I don’t know.”

The complaint was led by a group of parents who contended that their children were being denied the right to prompt identification and evaluation for their special needs, as required under federal and state law.

The specific provisions of the law specify that special needs students receive their first evaluation meeting within 20 days of a request and that special education services be implemented within 90 days of the parents consent.

Instead, the suit contended, the process was delayed months, and at time years, denying children the full range of required counseling, tutoring, and other help prescribed for their disabilities.

The plaintiffs further argued that the state was culpable in failing to enforce its laws, especially in a district that it directly controls.

Yesterday, the Education Law Center announced that all sides had finally settled without going to trial, with Newark vowing to close the gaps in its system and the state agreeing to better oversee the process, including the use of an outside monitor it selects.

Lowenkron readily conceded that the settlement fell short of stronger measures that the plaintiffs sought, including a fully independent monitor and specific staffing in the district, but she said it was time to get out of the courts and redress the problems.

“Now we’ll be able to get in there and do the work,” she said. “If they don’t comply, then we’ll be back in the courts. ”

The settlement puts significant onus on the state to ensure that Newark lives up to the agreement, with a regular series of compliance reports required, as well as independent follow-up and enforcement. One stipulation is that Newark must monitor and report its students’ progress using electronic tracking, suggesting that the district had been working with paper records.

The special monitor designated in the settlement is Priscilla Petrosky, a former Jersey City school administrator. State officials said Petrosky began her work last year, prior to the settlement.

“We will continue to work closely with Newark to ensure that all students receive the education they deserve,” said Justin Barra, a spokesman with the Department of Education.

The state also agreed to fund $1 million in services for students who lost out on them over the past two years due to the district’s negligence. It was also required to pay the parents’ legal fees, which were in excess of $230,000.

This is not the only special education case involving Newark in federal court. A class action case was filed in 2007 against the state, arguing that it failed to ensure students were being educated in the “least restrictive environment,” with Newark one of 20 districts cited. That case is also in U.S. District Court in Trenton.