PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Attorney’s Offices for the Eastern, Middle, and Western Districts of Pennsylvania announced jointly this week that the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) has agreed to resolve a federal civil rights investigation into its statewide system of alternative education programs, known as Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth. Under Pennsylvania law, students in grades 6 through 12 can be referred to these programs for temporary placements when they meet statutory criteria. These programs are separate from students’ usual general education programs, and do not typically offer the same access to instructional programs or activities.
The United States Department of Justice received complaints that these alternative education programs discriminated against students based on disability and failed to provide appropriate services to students who are learning English as a second language. In response, the Department of Justice investigated PDE’s approval and oversight of these programs across Pennsylvania.
The federal investigation arose under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits state and local government entities, including public schools, from discriminating based on disability. In addition, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 prohibits a state from denying equal educational opportunity based on national origin by failing to take appropriate action to overcome language barriers that impede equal participation by its students in an instructional program.
Under the settlement agreement, PDE will take measures designed to remedy the complaints. The agreement requires PDE to ensure that students with disabilities receive individual assessments to determine whether they are being placed in alternative education programs because of their disability. The agreement also requires PDE to monitor whether these programs have timely transferred students with disabilities back to their home schools. In addition, the agreement requires PDE to guarantee that local educational agencies attempt appropriate interventions before referring students with disabilities to alternative education programs, and to ensure that students are not placed in these programs solely because of disability.
The agreement will also require PDE to ensure that local educational agencies establish a service plan for students who are learning English in alternative education programs to ensure that they receive appropriate language assistance services. PDE will also improve its process for receiving and responding to complaints from parents or others regarding alternative education programs, and revise its non-discrimination policies and data monitoring practices to comply with federal law.
“Federal law does not allow schools to discipline students because of their disability, or to deprive them of an opportunity to learn English,” said United States Attorney William M. McSwain when announcing the resolution for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. “This agreement protects their civil rights, and comes with laudable cooperation by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
“Pennsylvania must ensure that children with disabilities are not placed in an alternative disciplinary program simply because they have a disability,” said David J. Freed, United States Attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. “We applaud the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for implementing numerous changes to its AEDY Programs already, which, coupled with this agreement, will improve the education of children with disabilities and give all children the opportunity to learn English in AEDY Programs.”
“All students should be provided an opportunity to succeed and are entitled to learn in an educational environment free from discrimination,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband of the Civil Rights Division. “We commend PDE’s cooperation throughout our investigation and for its commitment to ensure that students with disabilities and English learners are not prevented from learning opportunities afforded to other students. All students should receive the lawfully-required help they need to participate equally in schools.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael S. Macko handled the case, working jointly with the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division and with Assistant U.S. Attorneys Michael Butler and Jennifer Andrade from the Middle and Western Districts of Pennsylvania, respectively.