Fine Print: Disability Rights NJ v. NJ Department of Education Finally Settled

Consent agreement reached after seven years aims to reduce NJ’s high number of special-needs students in segregated settings

What it is: Filed in 2007, the federal lawsuit filed against the state for failing to ensure special-education students are served in the “least restrictive environment” reached final settlement this week with a consent agreement between the plaintiffs and the Christie administration. District Court Judge Mary Little Cooper signed the final agreement on Wednesday.

What it means: The agreement calls for the state to take extraordinary measures to insure that the districts with the lowest rates of inclusion — urban and suburban — follow through on remediation plans.

The agreement also calls for districts that have disproportionate numbers of minority students in separate placements to take corrective action. Other requirements include added compliance efforts in the state education department, additional training of district staff, and formation of a statewide committee of stakeholders to monitor the efforts.

The plaintiffs: The plaintiffs were a coalition of disability rights advocates and attorneys, including New Jersey Protection and Advocacy, the Education Law Center, the ARC of New Jersey, and Statewide Parent Advocacy Network.

What’s the problem: New Jersey has long had a history of having among 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.

What’s the difference: The state has also had a long history of facing federal pressure to remedy its record and it has made some progress in reducing the rate of outside placements. But the new settlement adds teeth to enforcing compliance, say the plaintiffs, and forces the state to take action against districts that fail to improve.

Quote: ‘I think the game-change is this settlement is 65 pages long, with attachments that are very prescriptive to what the state must do in working with districts,” said David Harris, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs with Lowenstein, Sandler of Roseland. “It doesn’t allow for any deviation, and the stakeholders committee will be watching over the districts on virtually every step.”

The 75 targeted districts: 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. They include urban districts like Newark, Elizabeth and Passaic, as well as suburban ones including Edison, East Windsor Regional and Livingston.

In addition, 10 districts are cited for having the widest disparities of placements based on race and ethnicity. They include Jersey City, Montclair, South Orange/Maplewood and Toms River.

State response: “This agreement is an extension of what the Department of Education has been doing for years to help bring students with disabilities back into their hometown schools,” said a statement yesterday from Michael Yaple, the state education department’s communications director. “We’ve done this through training, technical assistance meetings with individual school officials, through direct oversight of schools, and with grant programs for districts throughout the state. This decision reaffirms our commitment to work toward that goal.”

The timeframe: The state has to start the needs assessments by September. Once the corrective plans are developed, the clock starts on the three-year time frame for compliance with the consent agreement.

How much will it cost: The consent agreement does not address costs that will be incurred by both the state and the school districts.

“It will cost money, for sure,” Harris said. “But the federal court could only order actions, not say that you must (spend a certain amount).”

What’s next: “It’s only a first step,” Harris said. “It is a significant first step, but how many more steps are needs will depend on how faithfully the state implements it.”