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School District Won't Comply with IDEA; Risks State Takeover
BERKELEY, OCT. 11, 2001 -- A federal judge has "very reluctantly" ruled to give the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto, Calif. a final six months to improve its special education program before ordering a state takeover of the district.

U.S. District Court Judge Thelton Henderson said he felt compelled by legal precedent to give the district one last chance to meet state and federal mandates for special education but that the extra six months he is giving the district is not due to confidence that Ravenswood is on the right track. Ravenswood is almost entirely a minority and low-income district with 5,000 students, 500 of whom are identified as needing special education services.

The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, the East Palo Alto Community Law Project and the law offices of Rony Sagy first sued the school district and the California Department of Education in a class action in November 1996 for widespread violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.. On August 22, 2001, Judge Henderson found the school district in contempt of court for failing to implement a comprehensive court-ordered corrective action plan, to which the district had agreed.

Plaintiffs claim that the district fails to provide free accessible public education, unnecessarily segregates children with disabilities -- in fact, as Judge Henderson pointed out, the incidence of segregation has actually increased in the last two years -- and does not have qualified credentialed personnel to teach these children. Plaintiffs further claimed that the Calif. education dept. failed to do its job of monitoring and enforcing the law in Ravenswood.

"In my nearly 25 years of representing children with disabilities, the Ravenswood district's noncompliance is the worst I've ever seen," says DREDF attorney Diane Lipton. "The attitude and behavior of the current administration there has been appalling even as they face the Court's findings of contempt and a state takeover. The district's recalcitrance is almost beyond belief given the stern admonitions of the Court and contempt order. It reveals the district's enormous disregard for the educational needs of the district's children with disabilities."

In his 39-page ruling, Judge Henderson wrote that the Ravenswood district is "massively out of compliance with special education requirements." He said he is deeply concerned that "students continue to be deprived of critical services and suffer possible irreparable injury."

Attorneys for the children and for the department, which has recently taken a more active role in attempts to bring the district into compliance, strongly urged the Court to put the district into state receivership as a remedy for the district's contempt of court. Receivership would allow the state to appoint an administrator to replace the current school board and Superintendent Charlie Mae Knight in running the district until the district complied with the law and with court orders. Although Judge Henderson felt he had to give the district some additional time, he ordered specific steps the district has to take during this six-month reprieve. He is requiring the district to achieve a set of outcomes which would be reasonable for "a functioning school district" by March 31, 2002.

"While we would like to be pleasantly surprised by the district and see it achieve the outcomes, based on past and present behavior we're not very optimistic. The district has brought in new consultants to help. But we have heard too many excuses and failed promises to hold out much hope. In the meantime, almost another school year will have gone by for East Palo Alto's children, whose education has already been severely compromised. We are confident that if the district fails to show significant improvement by March 31, Judge Henderson will take all necessary steps to ensure future change, including a state take-over of the district," commented attorney Lipton.

In a separate ruling last week, Judge Henderson ordered hearings before a federal magistrate to investigate whether Superintendent Knight, school board members or the district's attorney were responsible for fraudulent petitions that the district submitted to the court in August showing community support for the superintendent and school board. The San Jose Mercury News review of these petitions last month revealed that the petitions were full of false signatures and other irregularities such as non-existent addresses.

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