Wake Co. schools routinely violate rights of students with mental health disabilities

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RALEIGH · July 25, 2018 – Attorneys with Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, yesterday filed the latest in a series of formal complaints with the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction alleging that the Wake County Public School System  still routinely violates the rights of its students who have mental health disabilities. The complaint identifies seven students whose rights have been grossly violated by the school system. However, these seven – by illustrating the system’s patterns and practices – represent hundreds of others treated the same way.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires the school system to educate all students with disabilities – including students with mental health disabilities – in an appropriate manner and in the least restrictive environment.

The system routinely violates these legal requirements by:

  • Suspending students without holding required manifestation determination reviews: a meeting of the student’s special education team to determine if the student’s behavior is related to their disability, in which case the school is legally prohibited from suspending the student;
  • Failing to provide educational services to suspended students with disabilities beginning on the 11th cumulative day of suspension;
  • Failing to provide transportation to alternative placements across the county, leaving students with mental health disabilities stranded at home receiving no instruction at all; and
  • Relying on overly restrictive placements for students with mental health disabilities instead of using counseling, social work, or other supports in schools, and instead of using appropriate, research-based behavior assessments and interventions.

Other rights violations include holding Individualized Education Program team meetings without the student’s teachers present, failing to update the IEPs of students in discipline-related alternative placements, and failing to appropriately monitor the progress of students in alternative placements.

These violations have led to – and will continue to lead to – dire educational consequences for students with mental health disabilities, if not fixed on the systemic level. Consequences faced by students in the complaint include: grade repetition, academic failure, over 40 days missed to suspension, placement in restrictive alternative programs, being required to receive all instruction at home, and drop out.

As one complainant parent stated, “I don’t think they did my son properly. My child wasn’t getting the education he needed, fell behind when WCPSS didn’t provide transportation for weeks to an alternative program, and thought he had no choice but to drop out. For him, school was hard enough. Wake County Schools didn’t need to make it harder.”

The school system often responds to these violations by offering compensatory tutoring services. However, Cari Carson, a Skadden Fellow attorney with Advocates for Children’s Services, says that “valuable, compensatory services are often hard for a family to access. The tutoring may only occur during the parent’s work day, or may be offered only after a student has already failed a semester. Frequently, the school system doesn’t offer the compensatory tutoring until the student’s family involves a lawyer of their own. What happens to all of those families who don’t have a lawyer? Moreover, individual compensatory services do nothing to remedy the widespread violations affecting the many students with mental health disabilities who are being denied an appropriate education. This is a systemic problem that will only be solved with a systemic solution.”

This is Advocates for Children’s Services’ fourth complaint since 2009 alleging that the Wake County school system systemically violates the rights of students with mental health disabilities. The Department of Public Instruction has found the Wake County Public School System to be out of compliance with the law multiple times as a result of these complaints. However, the school system continues to deny appropriate educational services to many students with mental health disabilities.

“It’s time to turn the tide for students with mental health disabilities in Wake County schools,” Carson said.

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Legal Aid of North Carolina is a statewide, nonprofit law firm that provides free legal services in civil matters to low-income people in order to ensure equal access to justice and to remove legal barriers to economic opportunity. Legal Aid’s Advocates for Children’s Services project seeks to end North Carolina’s school-to-prison pipeline by defending the rights of low-income children in public schools.

Media Contacts

Sean Driscoll, Director of Public Relations, 919-856-2132, seand@legalaidnc.org