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Parents of special-needs students in Brookline, Somerville and Wellesley sue over abrupt end to in-person education at the start of the pandemic

The parents of three special-needs students are suing both their communities and the state for the harm they say was done to their children in the way schools suddenly switched to online education in March, 2020 and in the way they say their schools did nothing to help provide the special teaching and assistance the children needed to work online.

In a suit filed in US District Court in Boston last month, the parents are seeking to become lead plaintiffs in a class-action suit on behalf of all families in the state with children who have "individualized education plans" or IEPs.

In addition to asking a court to declare they were wronged, the parents are seeking the appointment of a special master to oversee the tens of millions of dollars the state and local school departments receive in federal special-education funds and to ensure that students not only get the IEPs they deserve but that the plans are followed. Also, the parents seek an extra year of publicly funded education for the students, all teens, to make up for what they lost during the pandemic.

In their complaint, the parents allege the sudden switch to online violated a requirement of federal law that requires school districts to alert and consult with parents of special-needs students before making any major changes to their educational plans and failed to convene parent meeting later to ensure the students were getting an adequate education; that the teens were denied the "free and appropriate public education" guaranteed them by federal law. They add that this also violated the families' rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the equal-protection and due-process clauses of the 14th Amendment.

The complaint also charges state and local school officials with violating the federal racketeering law, because state officials, specifically Charlie Baker and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Secretary Jeffrey Riley, and school officials in the three communities worked to "defraud Plaintiffs, the beneficiaries of [federal special-needs education funds], by making false assurances that the DESE and [the school districts] complied with [the federal special-needs law] during the COVID-19 Pandemic."

The suit does not allege that Baker, Riley and the three school superintendents specifically conspired with each other but that both the state department Riley heads and the individual school departments are large enterprises that their leaders used to defraud the families and the federal government "through false assurances" to the feds that Massachusetts was complying with the federal law mandating equal education for students with special needs.

The suit charges that Baker is just as guilty because "by allowing Defendants' conduct to continue, Defendant Governor Charles Baker remained complicit in the scheme. "

The parents are represented by a lawyer for the Brain Injury Rights Group of New York.

PDF icon Complete complaint348.71 KB

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As a clinician and parent of kids with disabilities, just no.

There's validity to IEPs not being followed whatsoever during virtual learning, for sure. I can say for sure that there were widespread issues like kids who had SLP, OT, counseling, etc. on their IEPs and heard absolutely nothing from the therapists from March through June despite families and clinicians trying to chase them down. (Many many other teachers and clinicians were being flexible and creative and pulling together whatever they could to at the very least talk regularly with students and parents and give suggestions for working on skills at home.)

But suing schools for switching to online learning? There was a fucking pandemic. The experts on such things were advising everyone to stay at home and not go anywhere unless it was absolutely essential. Of course I realize that videoconferencing isn't as strong of a service delivery method for many kids (and others thrive with it because of the predictability and the comfortable/controlled environment), but this doesn't mean anyone should be transmitting deadly diseases because some kids learn better in person.

I really wish these privileged parents would have used their resources to file a class-action suit for IEPs not being followed in general, or practices like some districts requiring kids who "don't bother anyone" to completely lose it before they decide they have enough data that the kid can't deal with a regular ed setting. But suing because districts followed pandemic guidance? Fuck that.

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actually means suing your neighbors and other taxpayers. Do they think that whatever the legal fees and eventual settlements will be paid with money that fell out of the sky?

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I mean, you aren't wrong about screwing over taxpayers, but the steps to get to the point of suing a government agency are numerous and tedious, yet don't usually result in any effective remedy. Individual lawsuits are only somewhat effective at remedies for the people who win, but they take years, and don't generally result in an actual discipline or changes to those who courts deemed to have wronged people.

Robust oversight and early enforcement of laws would help in a lot of these cases, and would save tax dollars by reducing lawsuits. "We could get sued" is not nearly as much of a deterrent to shady practices as "our routine auditing/licensing body will threaten our program continuing to be open/us having our individual professional licenses." I totally get why they would choose class-action; if you aren't familiar with the Rosie D and 30,000 others class-action lawsuit against the state for lack of access to mental health services, it's constantly brought up in programs as a reason to make sure they're in compliance. Statutory and case law is not constantly considered in this way (ADA, anyone?), and people don't usually even know about individual suits that have been won against government agencies.

(Full disclosure: I sued a government agency for discrimination and won. The people who the very long court decision specifically spells out as having been incompetent bigots don't even know about the decision unless they happen to google their names. The decision basically just states that the agency as a whole was wrong and shouldn't do that to us next time we need something from them. Nothing about training, revising policies, not doing it to anyone else.)

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Preaching to the choir, here, but yeah, this is just... insane. NO ONE was going anywhere. Every specialist I work with, myself included, were doing everything we could to still get kids seen; I was seeing kids at 5-8 pm at night to do academic services, as were others, just to get eyes on our kids and make sure they were getting some form of service.

I don't want to paint with a wide brush, but I bet you anything these are the parents that continually partially rejecting IEPs so they can meet with the team on a monthly/weekly basis, and yet scream when said specialists can't make their child magically on grade level or suggest a diagnosis they don't like.

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As a parent of a young child possibly getting an IEP upon entry to the public school system, I attended a training on the IEP process. The advocate hired to run the training spent SO MUCH time talking about what to do when you disagree with the school, when to get lawyers, etc. I think about 50% of the presentation was about fighting with the school.

It totally set parents up to be defensive and suspicious of the IEP team. All the parent questions at the end of the presentation were worried questions about disagreeing with the IEP. It's no wonder we end up with parents like the ones you describe.

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For the love of all that is good in the world...we were in a pandemic. The first on our lifetime. If privileged parents would only realize they aren't the only ones in the world.

I agree; things could have been handled better for the kids and teachers but is suing the real answer or another waste of $ that could be going to the kids and educators?

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Have you ever had to care for a child with a significant behavioral or intellectual disability?

The word "privileged" DOES NOT APPLY.

I suspect the real reason for this suit is to keep districts from making shit up any time in the future that they don't want to follow the laws about educating students with disabilities.

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The word privilege applies in the sense that only some parents feel emboldened enough to take these steps. And those parents tend to be more privileged.

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would you propose a parent take if they feel our public government has illegally discriminated against their child?

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These sound like parents who are used to getting their way in *other* areas of life.

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I'd also suggest that:

Also, the parents seek an extra year of publicly funded education for the students, all teens, to make up for what they lost during the pandemic.

Is a big motivating factor as well. Especially if these kids are severely disabled enough to need special services out of school. A whole extra year before your kiddo ages out and you're scrambling to find some kind of alternative services which are now hugely expensive (instead of paid for by the school) is a big deal.

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