15 Civ. 06342 (E.D.N.Y.)

On November 5, 2015, the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), together with Jenner & Block LLP, filed a class action complaint in the Eastern District of New York on behalf of students with disabilities who are enrolled at Achievement First Crown Heights, a charter school in Brooklyn. The plaintiffs in the case are children who have been diagnosed with autism, ADHD, developmental delays, speech and language delays, and other disabilities that entitle them to educational services and supports and to protection from discrimination.

Achievement First Crown Heights is one of a chain of 30 charter schools operated by Achievement First, Inc., which is also named in the suit. The complaint alleges that Achievement First denies students with disabilities a free appropriate public education by routinely failing to provide them with legally-required educational services and supports.  Among other things, the complaint alleges, Achievement First violates its legal obligations to ensure that students receive therapies, including counseling and speech/ language therapy, that are mandated by the students’ Individualized Educational Programs because the therapies are necessary for the students to make reasonable academic progress.  The complaint further alleges that Achievement First punishes students with disabilities harshly and repeatedly for failing to comply with a rigid code of conduct that the school refuses to adapt to account for disability-related behaviors.  For example, the complaint alleges, Achievement First has punished students for disability-related behaviors including failing to immediately focus their eyes where directed by a teacher, moving from a designated spot on the floor, and failing to keep their hands stationary for an entire class period.

The suit alleges that the New York State Department of Education and the New York City Department of Education, also named as defendants, have abdicated their legal responsibilities to students with disabilities and turned a blind eye to Achievement First’s consistent violation of federal and state special education and anti-discrimination laws.  The suit alleges that the New York City Department of Education has ignored its obligation to ensure that students with disabilities at Achievement First receive a free appropriate public education; among other things, the Department ignores its obligation to generate Individualized Education Programs for those students that meaningfully address their unique educational needs, and it fails to take the steps necessary to ensure that students at Achievement First receive special education and services mandated by IEPs.

“Children with disabilities are entitled to receive a free appropriate public education whether they attend a charter school or a traditional public school, and Achievement First has failed to provide that to its students. Achievement First’s disregard for its legal obligations to provide the educational supports and services that its students need is stunning, and it speaks to a school philosophy that values conformity over education,” said Michelle Movahed, Senior Staff Attorney in NYLAG’s Special Litigation Unit. “It’s equally appalling that the City and State have failed to step in to protect these children.  The government has its own legal responsibilities to ensure the education of all children in the public school system, but has ignored those responsibilities as to students at Achievement First, allowing them to fall farther and farther behind.”

Achievement First espouses a model of schooling that “sweats the small stuff,” imposing punishments for minor infractions of the school’s code of conduct, under the theory that every student will “rise to the expectations placed on them”. Forbidden behaviors include students fidgeting or not maintaining eye-to-eye contact with the teacher – behaviors that children with autism, ADHD, or other diagnoses often cannot control.

“Achievement First Crown Heights requires plaintiffs to behave exactly as students without disabilities must and punishes them for failing to meet that unreasonable standard.  School personnel unlawfully discipline the children for behaviors that stem directly from their disabilities,” said Stephen L. Ascher, a litigation partner at Jenner & Block. “These students have been excluded from education, confined in isolation rooms and other unsuitable settings, and shamed and humiliated, in many cases compounding the effects of their disabilities.”

“The facts in this lawsuit should horrify anyone with a conscience. Schools are supposed be safe havens for our children, not places where they are humiliated and punished. It is particularly jarring that these actions were taken against students with disabilities, who are entitled to special protections so they can access education,” said New York City Public Advocate Letitia James, who is not involved in this case but has long advocated for greater accountability on the part of the city and more transparency for families with children with disabilities. “Every child deserves an education free from shame and coercion. I thank NYLAG and Jenner & Block for taking on this case, and look forward to continue working with them to protect our children in every way possible.”

Charter schools are authorized under New York State’s 1998 Charter School Act.  According to the New York City Department of Education, they were created to “increase learning opportunities for all students, with a special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are at risk of academic failure”. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately operated, and not bound by many of the laws and regulations governing public education. They are, however, required to comply with all laws and regulations regarding health, safety, civil rights, and special education, and they must educate children with special needs.

The parties are currently engaged in settlement discussions.

NYLAG Attorneys: Jane Greengold Stevens, Danielle Tarantolo, Michelle Movahed, Lauren Price

NYLAG Co-Counsel:  Jenner & Block, LLP

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