Children with disabilities are entitled to individual determinations of the school services and resources they need. In October 2014, we filed a federal lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia contending that the District has a unilateral policy of limiting the amount and duration of Extended School Year (ESY) services for students with disabilities. On behalf of thousands of children in the District who need services when school is closed for breaks (i.e. summer), we asked that the Court declare this policy to be illegal.
Recently, the District filed a motion to dismiss our case, and we responded that ESY services should be designed to support students with disabilities who may need continued services to learn skills or content during school breaks such as summer recess and holiday vacations. The district has been approaching these services by providing a one-size-fits-all determination which offers literally three days, four hours and six weeks of service for each individual student regardless of disability or need. This practice harms students whose needs and disabilities vary greatly.
The District claims that its one-size-fits-all program is necessary because it is a big district, it is administratively convenient, and the approach is merely ministerial and doesn’t harm anyone. We know better. Our clients Charlie, Jose and Evan* each received a form letter offering three days a week, four hours and six weeks of ESY services before having an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team meeting to discuss individual needs. The form letter goes so far as to state: “At the time of your child’s IEP meeting, it was determined that your son/daughter was eligible for the Extended School Year (ESY) Program.” After the letter was received, IEP meetings were held, but our clients were precluded from discussing or requesting changes in the amount or duration of ESY services.
Our clients need different programs than the one issued by the District. For example, Evan is a 13-year-old with a learning disability who needs assistance with reading when school is closed. Jose is a 14-year-old whose parents paid out of pocket for occupational therapy, speech therapy and other services last summer because the District’s one-size fits all program didn’t meet his needs. And Charlie first came to us for help because his mom was concerned that he wasn’t receiving any ESY services, and she was paying for services for him during summer breaks.
All three of our clients have sustained true harm from the district’s practice, contrary to what the district argues. In Evan’s case, this has already been found true by a hearing officer, who determined that he needed services for more days and more hours than that prescribed by the District’s predetermined policy.
Furthermore, their parents’ right to meaningful participation in the IEP process has been impacted. Because the amount of ESY services has been predetermined, the parents did not have a chance to participate in this discussion.
If you are a parent and you have received a form letter like this one, we want to hear from you.
*Client names changed for privacy.