|Home > News > The Special Ed Advocate News Alert, July 5, 1999|
(The following article was written by Craig Anderson and published in the L. A. Daily Journal)
Santa Clara County supervisors have approved a plan to hire new county legal staff to make sure school districts are meeting their obligation to provide individualized attention to students who need special education even if that means filing lawsuits against the districts.
While county officials
emphasized they prefer to work with school districts on the matter,
and said lawsuits would be a "last resort", education officials said
they feared the hiring of an attorney signaled a confrontational approach.
School officials’ objections carried less weight with the supervisor than did arguments by several judges and other county criminal justice officials that children who do not get the attention they need in school often end up in trouble with the law.
The supervisors approved the plan Monday by a 4-1 vote.
Few of the children in the county’s juvenile court have the up-to-date individual education plans that California schools are required to provide under state law, according to Superior Court Judge Read Ambler, who led the effort to force school administrators to do more.
Judge Ambler cited
statistics showing that 30 percent of the youths housed in Juvenile
Hall had been identified as requiring special education, but that only
10 percent of the children had a current plan.
Proponents say it costs three times as much --$31,000 a year--- to house a child in juvenile detention facilities as it does to pay for special education.
"We've learned a lot about how important it is that these children with attention deficit disorders be diagnosed and dealt with as soon as possible" said Supervisor Blanca Alvarado. "We are on the right track to improve the life chances for our kids."
The program will be run by the county counsel's office, which will hire a full-time attorney and paralegal to work with school districts to ensure that the needs of children with learning disabilities are being met.
Districts are required to conduct an assessment of a student's special education needs if a parent asks for one. If the student is deemed eligible, districts are supposed to develop individual plans.
These plans could involve hiring a tutor for a student who remains in a mainstream classroom, or putting a child in a smaller classroom where he or she can receive more attention, officials said. A student with more severe problems could be placed in a private school, at the district's expense.
Parents can challenge school districts over the adequacy of a child's individual program. But many lack the knowledge, financial resources or willingness to pursue administrative remedies or lawsuits, according to Probation Department employee Rosalee Brouillette.
County Counsel Ann Ravel soft-pedaled the possibility of filing lawsuits against school districts that fail in their legal obligations. "Our office always attempts to mediate and discuss before any lawsuit is filed", she said.
Still, the threat of litigation is clearly designed to get the districts’ attention.
"Collaboration has had limited success," said Supervisor Pete McHugh.
School officials complained that they were being threatened with litigation over a problem they want to fix. The problem, they said, is that they are in a financial bind because federal and state governments have imposed special education mandates without providing adequate funds to implement them.
"We are also advocates for special needs children and care very much about the appropriate diagnosis.", said Linda Murray, superintendent of the San Jose Unified School District. "The dollars would be much better spent in an advocacy role together."
Other school officials complained that they found about the county proposal just days before was approved by the supervisors.
Supervisor Joe Simitian asked that hiring of legal staff to deal with special education issues be postponed for six months so county officials could have" genuinely collaborative conversation with the school districts."
But the other supervisors all wanted to forge ahead immediately, and the motion to approve the $297,000 proposal passed with only Simitian opposed.
Santa Clara County’s special education program is not the only one in the state to face criticism. Investigators with the state Department of Education issued a scathing report earlier this year, charging that San Francisco’s schools are out of compliance with state and federal laws.
Writer: Craig Anderson, Daily Journal Staff Writer