The judge upheld the right of the N.Y. State Department of Education to issue a “cease and desist” order to the East Ramapo school district that halted the district’s procedures for settling parental complaints about where their special needs children were placed.
In what is seen as a serious setback to special needs children in the religious community, the decision indicated that these procedures and placements would not be allowed to continue.
The vast majority of East Ramapo’s approximately 2200 disabled children come from “families of color” that comprise the bulk of the district’s public school student body. The “cease and desist order” was aimed at the small fraction coming from the religious community, specifically orthodox children, who had been evaluated by the state’s Commission for Special Education (CSE) and granted services in a local public school.
Many of the parents in these cases challenged the CSE placements for their children, seeking instead to keep them in a yeshiva setting that mirrored the child’s home environment.
At “resolution meetings” with district officials, settlements were reached that, to the chagrin of public school activists, invariably accommodated parents’ requests. The settlements allowed the disabled children to receive special education services in a yeshiva, where the language of instruction and the cultural landscape are in harmony with the child’s home and upbringing.
COURT RULING CONFLICTS WITH FEDERAL LAW
If the state supreme court’s ruling backing up the “cease and desist” order stands, the resolution meetings and settlements with parents will terminate.
“That is what we’re appealing,” Yehuda Weissmandel, president of the East Ramapo school board,” told Yated. “Our position is that the court’s decision runs counter to federal law. The law entitles special needs children to obtain an education, and protects the parents’ right to educate their children in the school of their choice.”
He cited the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that requires the district to provide special education services to all disabled students in East Ramapo, whether they attend public or private school.
If parents disagree with the recommendation of local school authorities, Weissmandel explained, “IDEA allows them to challenge their child’s placement. IDEA also allows parents to place their child in a private school of their choice, and to sue the district for tuition reimbursement.”
What happens when parents sue? Provisions in the law call for a “resolution meeting,” at which a compromise is sought. If that fails, parents can choose to carry their challenge forward through higher levels of hearings and appeals.
This runs up enormous legal expenses on both sides. If the parents succeed, as has happened in the past, the district will have to cover all legal expenses – which can often exceed $100,000.
“East Ramapo is one of the state’s poorest school districts. The district does not have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spare, and cannot afford to litigate every parent’s IDEA complaint,” the school board president said.
In response, East Ramapo has sought to avoid litigation by facilitating settlements, so autistic and disabled children can be granted placement where parents believe the child can function best.
Critics pounced on this formula for saving the town money by saying the settlement meetings were mere charades. A Journal News editorial accused the school board of regularly “bowing to parents’ wishes,” “showing favoritism to the yeshiva community,” and “prioritizing families’ religious school preferences over children’s educational needs.”
Weissmandel calls the allegations “ridiculous.”
“They make it sound as though we’re laying out a buffet for these parents…saying ‘Come and get it!’ We’re simply trying to do what’s best educationally for every child within the parameters of the law, while being sensitive to the district’s financial situation.”
He noted “the district’s obligation to provide special education services to all its disabled children – those attending private school or public school. If parents prefer a private school – which in almost every case costs about the same or less than it would cost to educate the student in a public school – there is no financial reason for the district not to settle.”
Public school activists have poisoned the discussion with allegations that the school board is funneling federal money into the private schools by placing disabled children in yeshivos to obtain services, Weissmandel said, and “unfortunately the state, without any evidence, is buying into this libel.”
‘CEASE AND DESIST’ ORDER UNSUPPORTED BY EVIDENCE OF NON-COMPLIANCE
In an op-ed in the Journal News last week, Weissmandel pointed to the injustice of the “cease and desist” order by the state education commissioner’s office in December 2012, which sparked the district’s lawsuit. He noted the state didn’t even claim to have reviewed any of the “settlements” with parents, or found any particular settlement unreasonable or unwarranted.
The state’s only rationale, he noted, was its opinion that “the district was overruling the recommendations of the CSE (Commission of Special Education)” in too many cases. In other words, “We don’t like what you’re doing and we don’t have to tell you why because you know.”
Weissmandel’s letter also noted the commissioner’s office’s complete disregard for the financial plight of the East Ramapo school district.
“The commissioner’s office directed the district not to consider costs when deciding whether to settle a dispute, and essentially ordered the district to… litigate every parental challenge,” the letter said. This course would potentially bankrupt the district.
The lynchpin of the appeal, the school board president said, is that neither the commissioner’s office nor the Albany judge ever “identified any particular rule or regulation the district violated by settling with parents.”
The “cease and desist” order was arbitrary, unsupported by specified findings of impropriety or unlawfulness in how resolution meetings or settlements were being conducted by the district.
For example, the commissioner ordered that “resolution meetings be held properly.” The order also directed the district to “use the dispute resolution process established in federal and state law.” And the judge agreed it was right to require compliance in these areas.
But neither the judge nor commissioner’s office explained in what way the district was not in compliance with IDEA’s dispute resolution process.
“We think that is both unfair and detrimental to the district, because neither the commissioner nor the court gave any guidance for how the district should conduct resolution meetings in the future,” the Weissmandel letter said.
“If the commissioner is right and the district must always defer to the CSE, and must litigate every parent’s complaint to conclusion… that course could cost the district millions of dollars. The district simply cannot afford to do that.”
With no guidance on these issues from the court, “the East Ramapo Central School District board resolved to appeal the decision in order to clarify the district’s rights and obligations under the IDEA,” the letter concluded.
BEHIND THE CODE WORDS
One needs to be cruel to deny special needs kids the environment most like home to them, mostly at cost savings to taxpayers, critics of the ruling have said.
Others detect in addition to callousness toward disabled children from religious Jewish families, a hint of racism behind the use of the words “children in private school” as used by public school activists.
This is code for “Jewish children,” critics say, and the implication is that these children are asking for services they don’t deserve because they’re in a religious private school.
The bottom line, say supporters of East Ramapo’s appeal, is that as soon as any disabled child from this district walks into a public school and asks for services, he or she in a real sense is a “public school child,” as entitled as any other child to special education services.
When it comes to government assistance in helping disabled children grow and reach their potential, the law makes no distinctions between children – and neither should any honest and fair-minded citizen of this country.