Federal Judge Next Up in Disputes Over Special-Ed Kids

John Mooney, Founding Editor | February 18, 2020 | Education
New Jersey DOE in court for failing to meet federal and state timelines for resolving disputes between districts and parents of special-needs students
U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey in Camden

For the past year, the Murphy administration has been under U.S. Department of Education pressure to speed up its special education procedures.

On Tuesday, it will go before a federal judge who could crank up the pace even further.

U.S. District Court Judge Noel Hillman is expected to hear oral arguments in Camden on a year-old complaint against the state Department of Education and specifically Commissioner Lamont Repollet for failing to meet federal and state timelines for hearing and moving disputes between families and school districts over services provided special-needs children.

The class-action complaint contends thousands of families have suffered from what the plaintiffs call “systemic flaws in (the state’s) system for timely resolving special education cases,” allowing disputes to go unresolved for months and sometimes years.

‘Horrendously broken’

“The New Jersey special education dispute-resolution system is horrendously broken,” said lawyer John Rue in an email yesterday. Rue represents the nearly dozen families signed up as plaintiffs.

This is not a new problem, as New Jersey has long suffered from a variety of challenges about how local districts identify and serve special education students. For example, the state is also under court order regarding the placement of students in scores of districts and whether it ensures they are served in the “least restrictive environments,” as required by law.

The conflict over the length of time needed for families and districts to work through disputes has become the latest battleground, with the state under fire on a number of fronts.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education released a letter of noncompliance that detailed cases languishing for months, all in violation of state and federal guidelines that require cases to move within 30 days to 45 days, depending on the stage of the dispute.

The federal department found that in nearly 1,300 due-process complaints filed in New Jersey in 2016-2017, just 52 — fewer than 5% — were resolved within the required timelines.

Calling for more judges

The state responded over the summer by putting new procedures in place for districts, including a pilot program that would enlist outside mediators to resolve cases. The state Legislature also got in the act, and pressed for adding administrative law judges specifically for special education cases.

The complaint before Judge Hillman on Tuesday maintains that the problem persists, and lists plaintiff families with cases that are not resolved for close to a year. And it goes back in seeking relief for what it termed “thousands” of families who have been victims of the process for a decade.

A dispute in Clifton needed more than 300 days to resolve; another, out of Paterson, more than 200 days.

“We are essentially seeking a judicial order to cure the most egregious failures identified by the federal letter,” said Rue in his email. And “even after the system is fixed,” he added, “we are seeking relief for all the families that have been injured in the past decade, during the state’s period of failure.”

The Murphy administration is seeking the case be dismissed largely on technical grounds, maintaining that many of the plaintiffs are still in the dispute process and don’t have standing to contest the outcomes as yet. It also argues that Repollet, the state commissioner, cannot be held individually liable.

A host of prominent nonprofit groups have also joined the case as friends of the court, including the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, Statewide Parent Advocacy Network and Education Law Center.