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Legal Setbacks For Disabled Children In Orthodox Community

Long simmering tensions between the East Ramapo School District and public-school activists came to a head this month when the State Supreme Court ruled against the district in a case that is bound to impact disabled children from the Jewish community.

The ruling said the board’s procedures were not in compliance with state laws governing the special education placement of handicapped children, including a sizeable number from Orthodox Jewish homes.

The ruling addressed many children who receive special education services in private schools such as RISE (Ohr V’daas) and Kiryas Yoel, instead of the district’s mainstream public schools. The decision indicated that these placements would not be allowed to continue as before.

 

 “This was definitely a setback for the district, and for many special needs children,” observed school board president Yehuda Weissmandl in an interview with Yated. “The law mandates that a learning disabled child be given ‘appropriate placement.’ But after this ruling, ensuring appropriate placement for children from chassidic and Orthodox Jewish homes will be made much harder.”

 

The court action began as a lawsuit by the East Ramapo School District against the State Department of Education after the Department slapped penalties on the district and withheld funding, in protest against its procedures in special education placements.

 

COURT ATTACKED SPECIAL ED PLACEMENTS IN YESHIVAS

 

The judge sided with allegations that East Ramapo has been too quick to place special-needs children in yeshivas. The district had allowed children to be transferred after parents told school authorities at “settlement or resolution meetings” that the public school was inappropriate for their child’s special needs.

 

The “resolution meeting” is a formula for avoiding costly litigation against the school district for improper special education placement. Aggrieved parents have the right to take their grievances to court to obtain relief. If the parents win the case, the costs of litigation and paying attorneys expenses can bleed an already cash-strapped district of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

 

This scenario has proven all too real in the past. In response, East Ramapo has sought to avoid litigation by facilitating settlements for such children, so that they 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, that parents didn’t actually prove the public school was inappropriate for their autistic or handicapped child, as the law requires.

 

In other words, before a parent can ask the district to pay for his child’s special tuition in a private religious school, he must not only claim but prove (a) that the child cannot be properly serviced in a public school and (b) that the private school is better equipped to help him.

 

For Orthodox Jewish parents, this position is so self-evident, it needs no elaborate explanation. That a child on the spectrum (suffering from some degree of autism) and other disabled children do not transition well to unfamiliar environments even within their own culture is beyond dispute, experts say.

 

“Compound those psychological difficulties when the disabled child is uprooted from a deeply religious school setting and transplanted to an environment that is culturally and linguistically alien,” said Weissmandl. “How can this be considered ‘appropriate placement?’ How can this be good for him?

 

RECYLCING THE LIE

 

Critics of the school board appear not to care. What preoccupies them is the shopworn canard that directing students to private schools “sucks away funding from public schools.” Were all these students to be enrolled in public school, the argument goes, the higher numbers would net more government funding.

 

The irony, says Weissmandel, is that while there are three times as many children from the private schools as there are in public schools (about 22,000 yeshiva children to 9,000 public school children) only about 25% of the special education population are from the Orthodox community. That means public schools are getting the lion’s share of state special education monies because “the money follows the child,” and the majority of special education children are in public schools.

 

In addition, taking a closer look at the costs of delivering special education to a disabled child in a public school compared to what it costs in Ohr V’daas, it appears that far from costing more in a private school, the exact opposite is true.

 

According to court papers, the average yearly cost in Ohr V’daas is $26,500 per child. In the public schools, the average cost is between $40,000 and $100,000. Far from losing money on an Ohr V’daas or Kiryas Yoel placement, the district actually saves money.

 

In a phone interview with Yated, school board president Yehuda Weissmandl noted that the economic advantage of educating disabled children in Ohr V’daas was on strikingy display recently when the school turned over to the district about $100,000 that had been allocated to it. “They ended up not using it, so they returned it to the district,” he said.

 

“The monies that are spent on private schools are state mandated just like the monies that are spent on public schools. Nobody is depriving anyone of what they’re entitled to.”

 

MISINTERPRETING THE LAW

 

When the “you’re-stealing-money-from-the-public-schools” charge doesn’t hold up, critics take refuge in an irrational argument: “the law is the law,” even if placements in public school is going to cost the district extra money.

 

They bolster this stance by quoting a state regulation that disabled children must be given services in the “least restrictive environment,” generally misinterpreted to mean a public school facility.

 

This law was repeatedly cited in the State’s brief to the Supreme Court, as if “least restrictive environment” is a magic bullet that negates the importance of granting disabled children “appropriate placement.”

 

What is so little understood, said a board member, is that “least restrictive environment” has nothing to do with favoring public over private schools for special education services. The term is used in a purely educational sense.

 

In other words, the law is saying, “Don’t exaggerate a child’s disability and treat him as more handicapped than he is. If he needs 2-4 hours of special education a week, don’t assign him 6-8 hours. If he can function decently in a class size of 12 children, don’t assign him placement in a group of 5. Make his educational setting as unrestrictive as possible.”

 

This can be done in a yeshiva as effectively as in a public school. But in an absurd twist, the misunderstood catchphrase of “least restrictive environment” is being used to champion public over private schools for special education placement, although this is clearly not the law’s intent.

 

OLD FASHIONED BIGOTRY

 

According to local Rockland County papers, what fuels tensions and sets community activists’ teeth on edge is that a school district of predominantly black and Hispanic families is being led by school board of predominantly Orthodox Jews.

 

The Jewish character of the board – 6 out of 9 members are Jews – has long inflamed people who feel the almost exclusively black and Hispanic constituency of the school population demands more representation on the school board.

 

Anti-Semitic bigotry in local papers hiding behind a call for social cohesion pour fuel on the fire, as in this slur: “Overdevelopment, illegal conversion of single-family homes into multifamily homes that have created slum conditions, and the lopsided ultra-Orthodox/Hasidic influence on the East Ramapo school board has led to increased social segregation,” the Lower Hudson website powered by the Journal News charged.

 

“These board members don’t send their own children to our schools,” one aggrieved public school parent complained in another local paper. “Why should we trust them to care about our public schools when their own children go to private schools?

 

But school board members reject claims that a predominantly Jewish school board can’t represent the public school interests.

 

“Men can legislate for women, women can legislate for men, white people can legislate for black people and black people can legislate for white people,” past school board president Schwarz said. “I don’t see where it makes any difference.”

 

He said in large measure the board’s makeup is due to the drastically changing demographics in Rockland County as well as the power of democracy.

 

The East Ramapo neighborhoods of this county have been transformed in the past two decades. They’ve filled up with tens of thousands of Jews relocating from Orthodox Jewish enclaves in Brooklyn.

 

The new residents quickly forged themselves into a high-functioning social and political entity in neighborhoods like East Ramapo. They built a network of yeshivos and new housing and took advantage of the blessings of democracy to win a strong political voice.

 

Though not a majority of the population by far, they have organized to vote down school budgets that hike up taxes. They’ve elected members of their own communities to the school board.

 

By contrast, “the public-school community is less organized; many of its members are believed to be non-citizens who don’t vote,” the Huffington Post wrote. “And the area’s older residents have also tended to vote against school budget increases.”

 

STATE FUNDING ABYSMALLY LOW

 

With the district so deeply in the red, the board has been forced to cut non-mandated and extra-curricular programs in public schools, angering parents who believe the trope that public school resources are being diverted to the yeshiva community.

 

School board members argue that the district is officially one of the poorest in the state and receives so little government funding, it can’t support more than the minimum services.

 

They say the district’s problems stem from the demographics: The district has about 9,000 public school children and an estimated 20,000 to 22,000 in private schools, almost all of them Jewish. That means only one third of the district’s children receive a public school education.

 

With state educational funding corresponding to the number of children in public school, the monies allocated to the district are abysmally low.

 

Current board president Yehuda Weissmadl says “more money from the state” is the solution to East Ramapo’s problems. But for that to be achieved, he said, “people have to work together for the benefit of the district, setting aside their prejudices and grievances for the common good.”

 

DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION FUELING HOSTILITY

 

Some wonder if the distrust is too deep for money to solve. A local paper described a board meeting open to the community that illustrated that distrust and the “apparent disdain” each side has for the other.

 

“There seemed little in common between the board members, most in yarmulkes and black coats, and the onlookers, mostly from racial minorities,” the paper wrote. What ensued between board members and onlookers soon underscored that divide.

 

The article went on to describe how the gathering degenerated into chaos with about 20 residents, including students, “shouting in protest.” With the meeting derailed by such raucous behavior, “the board decided in the future students could only address the board at the end of meetings.”

 

Participants reacted in fury.

 

“You’re not doing right by these children!” shouted one woman. “What about freedom of speech?”

 

The president of the board responded that “public comment had become offensive and insulting. I think there are people who want to be abusive to the board and when it starts we’re not going to tolerate it.”

 

In response, people “stood and turned their backs on the board,” as the members tried to get the meeting back on track, the article reported.

 

These antics reflect more than a childish meltdown on the part of onlookers frustrated at not getting their way, insiders say. They draw their strength from an anti-school board hostility that some say comes from the State Department of Education, which has made noise about its right to do away with a school board altogether.

 

The East Ramapo lawsuit brief noted this hostility in describing questionable actions the Department took that embarrassed East Ramapo and muddied its image.

 

In December of last year, the Department has issued a letter of “cease and desist” – essentially ordering a halt to the district’s resolution meetings and placements of disabled children in private schools due to ongoing “violations.”

 

But before sending the letter to the East Ramapo District, the Department distributed it to the press. Newsday ran the story “State to East Ramapo: State Violations Continue,” before the District had even seen the letter.

 

“The Department destroyed any sense of their acting in good faith with that move,” one insider said. “If that’s what’s happening on the state level, what can you expect from the locals?”