On Tuesday, Aug. 3, the Department of Justice announced a settlement agreement with Volusia County Schools "to address the district's systemic and discriminatory practices that punish students with disabilities for their disability-related behavior and deny them equal access to VCS's programs and services," according to a press release by DOJ.
The settlement agreement states that an investigation was opened in April 2018 in response to a complaint involving 11 students with disabilities — nine of whom are autistic — who the district discriminated against by relying on "overtly punitive" disciplinary tactics and law enforcement to address known behaviors due to their disabilities. These include regularly having parents or guardians pick them up from school, staff telling parents or guardians to keep the student home, formal suspensions, and having the students removed from campus by misusing the Baker Act.
The agreement details that DOJ received information on autistic students in 45 of the 85 VCS schools over the course of the investigation through interviews with parents, teachers, Exceptional Student Education staff, and others which substantiated the original complaint that disabled students were being excluded from education programs via unnecessary removals from the classroom. The investigation also found that VCS staff often failed to implement necessary behavioral supports and lacked training on how to properly respond to students’ disability-related behavior," the press release states.
“Students should never be denied their education on the basis of disability, and we will not yield until the full measure of rights guaranteed by the ADA is a reality for all,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in the press release. “The department is committed to enforcing the law to make sure schools meet the needs and respect the rights of all their students.”
As a result of the settlement, VCS has to review and amend all its written policies and procedures relating to students with disabilities, to be submitted to the DOJ within 150 days for review. The school district will now be required to implement a system to track all removals of students with disabilities from classroom instruction. All employees who work with autistic students will also be required to go through a mandatory training program, to be developed by VCS.
“We are appreciative that VCS cooperated with our investigation, recognized the opportunity to improve, and has committed to the successful implementation of our agreement,” said Acting U.S. Attorney Karin Hoppmann for the Middle District of Florida in the press release. “We look forward to working with the district to improve educational opportunities for all students.”
The Ormond Beach Observer reached out to VCS for comment, but did not receive a response in time for publication.