New York City School System Fails to Provide Necessary Services to Students with Disabilities in the Bronx

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A classroom with desks arranged in clusters. The wall says "SI SE PUEDE!"
Photo by Marcin Polak, CC BY 2.0.

July 27, 2017 – New York, NY – Disability Rights Advocates (“DRA”), a national nonprofit legal center, brought a class action lawsuit in federal court today on behalf of students with disabilities from the Bronx who are being denied legally-mandated special education services.

When the New York City Department of Education (“DOE”) cannot find providers for related services that a student with a disability needs like occupational therapy or speech therapy, it issues a “voucher” called a Related Service Authorization to parents instead. Provided with nothing more than an out-of-date list of names the size of a phone book, the parent becomes responsible for finding someone willing to provide the service in exchange for the voucher. While typically these services would be provided during the school day, the families of children receiving these vouchers are left to fend for themselves, often facing insurmountable obstacles related to limited transportation options, inflexible work schedules, and language barriers.

Plaintiffs Bronx Independent Living Services (BILS) and several children with disabilities who attend public schools in the Bronx are suing to remedy this unjust and discriminatory situation, hopefully before the new school year begins.

The DOE has long been aware that the voucher system is hopelessly broken for many students, especially in districts with high levels of poverty and at the geographic outskirts of New York City where the vouchers for related services go unused at ridiculously high rates. In the Bronx, over 63% of the vouchers are not used. District 8 in the Bronx, where 91% of the vouchers are not used by parents, has the lowest usage rates of any district in the City. The rates of usage are not much better across the City generally as almost half of the over 9,000 vouchers issued in the 2015-2016 school year went unused.

“The DOE must stop pretending it is meeting its legal obligations by transferring its duties to parents who are often over-burdened,” said Michelle Caiola, Director of Litigation at Disability Rights Advocates. “The law requires the services actually be provided, but DOE’s own data show that is not happening.”

After collaborating on an investigation into this issue with DRA, on July 12, 2017, Public Advocate Letitia James released a report detailing the voucher system failure. As part of its investigation, her office called over 250 occupational therapists and speech therapists from the various lists of “available” providers that the DOE gives to parents along with the voucher. From one list alone, the Public Advocate called 174 providers and only 3% of the providers had available appointments and were willing to travel to the Bronx to provide services. From another list, the Public Advocate called a random sample of 100 providers and none of these providers were willing to travel to the Bronx to provide services.

“As our investigative report showed, the Department of Education has once again failed to serve the most vulnerable children of New York City by not providing adequate support for students with disabilities,” said Public Advocate Letitia James. “Such a heavy reliance on Related Service Authorizations has made it increasingly difficult for students and parents to obtain their legally mandated services and is leading to the gross neglect of students with disabilities. I want to thank Disability Rights Advocates for bringing this lawsuit and calling on the DOE to reevaluate its use of RSA vouchers and find a way to provide for all of our students.”

Brett Eisenberg, Executive Director of Bronx Independent Living Services, said: “It’s crucial that students with disabilities receive the related services prescribed in order to achieve academically. Every day, every month, and every year that this system is allowed to continue as it currently functions means more and more vulnerable children fall behind. That’s not acceptable.”

“This systemic denial of legally-mandated services through a broken voucher system in the Bronx must end,” said Seth Packrone, Staff Attorney with DRA. “The DOE has abdicated its duty to provide these children with a free and appropriate public education.”

The lawsuit seeks an immediate overhaul of the DOE’s delivery of related services in the Bronx, including a system to track and follow up, to ensure that all students receive their related services.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York. A copy of the Complaint is available below.

The Public Advocate’s report is available at http://pubadvocate.nyc.gov/sites/advocate.nyc.gov/files/denial_of_service_report_7717_1.pdf.

About Disability Rights Advocates

Founded in 1993, Disability Rights Advocates (DRA) is the leading national nonprofit disability rights legal center. Its mission is to advance equal rights and opportunity for people with all types of disabilities nationwide. DRA represents people with the full spectrum of disabilities in complex, system-change, class action cases. DRA is proud to have upheld the promise of the ADA since our inception. Thanks to DRA’s precedent-setting work, people with disabilities across the country have dramatically improved access to health care, employment, transportation, education, disaster preparedness planning, voting and housing. For more information, visit www.dralegal.org.

About Bronx Independent Living Services

Bronx Independent Living Services (BILS) is an independent living center located at 4419 Third Avenue, Bronx, New York. Founded in 1983, BILS is a consumer-based, non-profit organization providing services and advocacy for independent living for individuals with disabilities. BILS’s mission is to ensure full integration, independence, and equal opportunity for all people with disabilities by removing barriers to the social, economic, cultural, and civic life of the community. For more information, visit http://bils.org.

Contacts

Seth Packrone: (212) 644-8644
spackrone@dralegal.org 

Michelle Caiola: (212) 644-8644
mcaiola@dralegal.org