Archive for July, 2009

Time for MPS to Make Good its Debt

DRW Managing Attorney Monica Murphy wrote the following op-ed for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Stop fighting and start serving neglected students
By Monica Murphy

Posted: July 24, 2009

The Editorial Board has again urged a settlement in the Disability Rights Wisconsin special education lawsuit against Milwaukee Public Schools (“Time for a settlement,” July 14). While these editorials have supported providing services to students who were wrongly denied them, a position we at DRW strongly agree with, the issue is no longer one of settlement but of resolution and delivering those long overdue services.

Settlement implies negotiation and compromise. DRW has been trying to do just that for close to 10 years.

For a year before we filed our lawsuit, we met with officials from both MPS and the state Department of Public Instruction, asking them to address our concerns. Since this lawsuit was filed in 2001, we have been through several rounds of unsuccessful negotiations.

In 2007, U.S. Magistrate Judge Goodstein found that both MPS and DPI had violated students’ rights under special education law. Another round of settlement talks began. We reached a settlement with DPI at that point. The results of that settlement were approved by the judge and its terms are being implemented in an effort to improve MPS services for the future.

But MPS resisted and continues to resist the implementation of the DPI settlement, recently asking the Court of Appeals to throw out the judge’s order.

Being unable to reach a settlement with MPS, we proceeded to trial on that issue. We clearly spelled out what we were looking for in compensatory service for the class of students we represent. Judge Goodstein made a remedy ruling on June 9. He did not give plaintiffs everything they were looking for, but the court spelled out his plan for remedy, including the appointment of an independent monitor to oversee compensatory services to students whose rights were violated.

MPS has asked the Court of Appeals to throw out that decision as well.

According to its press release, MPS claims it cannot accept the court’s order because it will be too costly. The special education law makes no exceptions for districts experiencing financial constraints.

The Editorial Board seems to have bought the MPS excuses – and seems to think that the appeal was a reasonable attempt to pressure DRW to negotiate and bargain some more. However, no offer has been put forth by MPS since the court’s remedy decision.

Now is the time for MPS to accept the court’s ruling, implement its terms and deliver appropriate services to qualifying students. The time for further delays in educating MPS students has passed. Now is the time for action. It is especially beneficial to MPS to implement the remedy now as it expects to receive close to $300 million in stimulus funds over the next two years.

No more excuses. Students have been waiting too long.

Monica Murphy is managing attorney of Disability Rights Wisconsin.

Click here to read this item on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s website.

Judge rejects MPS request to halt search for past special education students

By Alan J. Borsuk of the Journal Sentinel

Posted: July 22, 2009

Saying that Milwaukee Public Schools had already delayed too long in providing special education services to some students who were entitled to them years ago, a federal judge Wednesday rejected a request from MPS to halt the process of finding those students.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Aaron Goodstein acted quickly on the motion from MPS’ lawyers – they filed their request Tuesday.

“The cliché, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ is appropriate here,” Goodstein wrote. “A decade of delay and denial has already caused substantial injury to class members; any continued delay will not only continue but exacerbate the harm.”

Goodstein ruled in June that a search should be undertaken to find students who did not get special education help they should have received from 2000 to 2005, and that an independent monitor should be appointed to oversee the search and decide what kind of help should be given to them now.

Two weeks ago, MPS leaders appealed Goodstein’s ruling and previous decisions he has made in the case that are leading to major changes in how MPS will determine which students get special education. That appeal was followed by the request to Goodstein this week to stop the search for past students. In June, Goodstein gave MPS and the organization that filed the case, Disability Rights Wisconsin, until Friday to come up with proposals for how to proceed.

In the new decision, Goodstein said MPS’ concerns that it would be harmed by proceeding with the search while the main appeal is pending didn’t carry as much weight as the urgency of helping the past students.

“When the harm of MPS’ failures is exacerbated by further delay, not only does every class member suffer, but the harm extends to the public as a whole,” he wrote. “The consequences of MPS’ systemic denial of FAPE (free and appropriate public education, as required by federal law) manifest themselves every day in countless varied ways throughout this community.”

Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, managing attorney for the disability rights organization, said he was thrilled with the ruling. He said the request to delay was “another example of MPS choosing to pay attorneys instead of choosing to pay to educate students.”

In June, Goodstein asked the two sides to meet on how to find the students and a monitor for the process.

Spitzer-Resnick said he expects both sides to make their proposals separately by Friday.

MPS officials did not have immediate reaction.

Click here to read the article on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s website.

Workplace Giving to DRW through Community Shares of Wisconsin

Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) is a proud member of Community Shares of Wisconsin (CSW). The oldest social action fund in the country, CSW supports Wisconsin organizations that advocate, educate and seek progressive solutions to problems and issues in our state. Community Shares connects donors with Disability Rights Wisconsin through workplace giving and cooperative fundraising.

One of the easiest way to make a contribution to Disability Rights Wisconsin is to give through payroll deduction at your workplace. This is the time of year that most work places conduct their work place campaigns and offer the opportunity to donate this way.

If you work at one of the many employers that make Community Shares of Wisconsin part of their charitable payroll deduction programs, you can direct a contribution to Disability Rights Wisconsin that will be deducted from your paycheck on a regular basis and transmitted to DRW. For a list of the employers who offer payroll deduction to Community Shares of Wisconsin member programs, visit the “Participating Businesses” link at Community shares of Wisconsin’s “Workplace Giving” tab.

You may also make a secure donation online to DRW through the Community Shares of Wisconsin web site. Follow the link below to the Community Shares of Wisconsin website and choose Disability Rights Wisconsin in the drop down box.

Click here to donate through Community Shares.

Milwaukee Public Schools Appeal Special Education Ruling

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article:

MPS calls judge’s ruling too costly
District appeals order to search for unidentified special-needs students
By Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel

Posted: July 9, 2009

Milwaukee Public Schools this week filed an appeal in an ongoing special education lawsuit, saying that a federal judge’s order from last month is too broad and too costly to implement.

The order from U.S. Magistrate Judge Aaron Goodstein required MPS to launch a wide search for former and current students – including regular education students – it failed to serve under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act from 2000 to 2005. The judge ordered that those students should be compensated but left the details on how to do that up to the plaintiff and defendants.

MPS officials said the costs of carrying out such a search with so many students would burden the district and taxpayers. The appeal also challenges several previous court rulings in the case, including an order that the district take remedial action on a class-wide basis, and a ruling that obligated the district to evaluate kids for special needs who have been retained a grade or received multiple suspensions.

Superintendent William Andrekopoulos admitted Thursday, “We do play a role in some of this. We agree that maybe we missed some kids.”

Rudolph M. Konrad, a Milwaukee deputy city attorney, said that if the rulings from the lower courts were upheld, it could hurt the district’s finances.

“If in the course of these negotiations, we arrive at a final conclusion that we deem acceptable, reasonable and within parameters that the district can afford, we can drop the appeal,” Konrad said.

The move is yet another hang-up in a laborious, 8-year-old lawsuit filed by Disability Rights Wisconsin. In earlier rulings, Goodstein ruled that Milwaukee had violated students’ rights and ordered major changes in MPS when it comes to evaluating children for special education. MPS is implementing those changes.

In the latest ruling, Goodstein ordered the plaintiffs and defendants to provide proposals by July 24 on how they were going to proceed with the remedy to locate and compensate students who missed receiving special education services. According to MPS, the individuals who could be affected by the lawsuit range in age from 7 to 29 years old.

MPS officials said they’re not willing to negotiate because of the unknowns when it comes to the cost of finding and compensating students. Andrekopoulos said that even determining how many kids they need to contact regarding the issue is unclear.

“If you’re (contacting) the kids who have been retained (a grade), plus the kids who have been suspended a number of days, that’s thousands of children,” Andrekopoulos said.

He said, “Then the question is: What’s our obligation to find these students and send a notice out saying, ‘Did you feel that you needed to have special-needs services?’ Is it posted on the Internet? Do you send a letter to every child in the district, or do we send a letter only to children who were retained or suspended?”

Andrekopoulos added that proposals for how to compensate the students have varied from paying their college tuition to giving them a computer. Some of the plaintiffs’ requests have been unrealistic, he said.

But Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, the managing attorney for Disability Rights Wisconsin, said he doesn’t think the district has any grounds for appeal.

“There’s no financial defense to violating kids’ special education rights,” Spitzer-Resnick said. “What they’ve chosen to do throughout this case, and what they’re doing now, is making a decision to pay attorneys rather than compensate kids whose rights have been violated.”

Spitzer-Resnick said regular education children needed to be included in the search because those were the very children who might have missed getting evaluated for services. Districts have a duty to look for kids who may have disabilities and evaluate them, Spitzer-Resnick said.

He added that MPS shouldn’t be claiming the remedy is going to be too expensive before the details of the remedy have been established.

Click here to read the full article on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s website.

Print version of July 10 Milwaukee Public Radio piece:

It may be a while before thousands of Milwaukee Public School students denied special education services will be compensated. That’s because MPS plans to appeal a recent ruling in the case. WUWM’s Marti Mikkelson has more.

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In 2007, a federal magistrate ruled that MPS and the State Department of Public Instruction failed to accommodate some students who needed special education services. Last month, the judge ordered the district to come up with a plan for compensating the students who attended MPS between 2000 and 2005. The proposal is due July 24.

School Board President Michael Bonds says the judge ordered an extremely broad pool of potential students to be compensated. He says the district would have to do an extensive amount of research identifying and locating all the students.

“The scope of the remedy is beyond the finding and it’s so broad that literally it will cost MPS millions of dollars. The finding was special ed students from 2000 to 2005 but the remedy includes regular students too,” Bonds says.

According to Bonds, the district is doing the right thing for taxpayers by appealing the ruling. He says some students may have already graduated, and the district would have to spend countless hours tracking them down. In addition, Bonds says he doesn’t know why the judge’s ruling includes regular education students, and that is the primary grounds for the appeal.

Atty. Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, of the group Disability Rights Wisconsin, filed the class action lawsuit in 2001. He says MPS has known all along it would have to compensate some students who should have been in special education classes, but weren’t.

“It has always included regular education children who may be eligible for special education, should have been evaluated and were not. Regular education children who have no disability, they won’t get anything,” Spitzer-Resnick says.

Spitzer-Resnick says there’s no excuse for violating the civil rights of students, and MPS should follow the judge’s order. He adds that in most class action suits, not every victim actually files for compensation. Spitzer-Resnick says the district’s appeal will only result in the case dragging on longer, costing taxpayers more money