Several groups, including a national group that says it supports the rights of intellectually disabled people, are alleging Kanawha County’s school system has been illegally moving “scores” of children with disabilities out of general education classrooms and either into classes only with other students with disabilities or out of school entirely.
The groups say they’ve filed three complaints with the state Department of Education related to these allegations.
The Arc, the national group, sent out a news release Monday afternoon with these allegations.
The release’s headline alleges “systemic disability discrimination” in Kanawha. The release says students with “autism, intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental health concerns, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” are among those suffering.
“The students are segregated for years in separate classrooms where they interact only with other students with disabilities, and receive an inferior education; placed on ‘homebound’ status where they may only receive a few hours of tutoring each week; or suspended or even expelled from school for behaviors that are caused by their disabilities,” the release said. “The students are not receiving critical behavioral supports that can help them be successful in the general education classroom with their classmates without disabilities.”
The release said the following groups are also involved in the allegations against Kanawha:
- the Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a Washington, D.C.-based group that says it advocates for the rights and “full inclusion” of people with mental disabilities
- Disability Rights of WV, a Charleston-based advocacy group
- Mountain State Justice, a West Virginia nonprofit legal firm
- Latham & Watkins, a 14-country law firm
Lydia Milnes, a Morgantown-based Mountain State Justice attorney, said there are currently only three complaints, all filed last month, on behalf of three Kanawha students.
They aren’t the kind of complaints that officially start lawsuits, Milnes said, but instead are “due process complaints” that are part of the administrative process under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Briana Warner, the Kanawha school system’s communications director, wrote in an email that “we cannot comment on administrative proceedings. We are addressing these three individual complaints as we would with any due process complaint procedure.”
Milnes said the act requires students to go through that initial administrative process before the issue can possibly be appealed to the courts.
A judge could then allow a “class action” lawsuit involving many more than just three students.
“We have expressed to Kanawha County that we do see this as systemic, and our ultimate goal would be to see widespread change — not just changes for these three specific individuals,” Milnes said.
She said the students and their advocates aren’t seeking monetary damages. She said the goal is to get experts to thoroughly review the way Kanawha currently provides behavioral supports, have extensive training in Kanawha on ways to evaluate and address each child’s behavior and, if needed, make the county hire more people to help.
Also, she said she wants a change in “the culture of removing children and segregating children based on their disabilities.”
“Until you reach a certain point in a case, you can’t make any final determinations,” she said. “We would love to be able to resolve the case and reach an agreement with Kanawha County before having to file something along the lines of a class action [lawsuit].”
But she said if they’re unable to achieve “the reform that we’re hoping for, then that’s something certainly that’s being considered.”
The Arc’s news release says a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, sets “a new and more demanding standard for what schools must do to adequately educate students with disabilities.”
“For virtually all children, this means receiving instruction and services in the general education classroom, with appropriate supports, alongside students without disabilities,” the release says. “In addition, in 1999 in Olmstead v. L.C., the Court held that the [Americans with Disabilities Act] prohibits the needless isolation or segregation of people with disabilities.”