Gaskin v. Pennsylvania Class Action Suit
P R E S S R E L E A S E
Dec. 21, 2004
PENNSYLVANIA AGREES TO CHANGES IN SPECIAL EDUCATION
TO INCREASE INCLUSION OF STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES
IN REGULAR EDUCATION CLASSES.
The state of Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia today concluded a historic settlement of litigation designed to change the quality of special education services throughout the state. Pursuant to the agreement, the state will change how it helps its 501 school districts comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and how it monitors that compliance. The settlement is designed to increase the inclusion of students with disabilities in regular education classes with non-disabled students.
The settlement comes after ten years of effort in a state-wide class action called Gaskin v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Education in which the Law Center represented a class of 280,000 special education students, 12 named plaintiffs, and 11 disabilities advocacy organizations, including The ARC of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania TASH, and Pennsylvania Protection and Advocacy, Inc.
The United States Department of Education reported that Pennsylvania was the 7th lowest state in 2002 for including students with disabilities in regular education classrooms.
Judith Gran, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, hailed the agreement. The Rendell Administration recognized that in too many parts of the state not enough has been done to provide students with disabilities a meaningful education in the least restrictive environment. Too many students and their parents have been frustrated by school districts= failure to fulfill the promise of federal law. We are delighted that this administration is willing to make the significant efforts necessary to make Pennsylvania a leader in teaching students with disabilities.
As one of the key new elements to refocus the state=s activities, the settlement creates an Advisory Panel on Least Restrictive Environment which shall meet quarterly to review progress in the implementation of the settlement, including growth in inclusive practices, improvements in quality of actual special education practices, and whether teachers and other school personnel are receiving the training and assistance needed to meet the needs of special education students. Twelve of the 15 members of the Advisory Panel will be selected by the plaintiff organizations.
The agreement provides that the state will undertake a new effort to advance the inclusion of students with disabilities in regular education by:
- Increased monitoring for those 50 districts with the poorest record of inclusion of special education students with regular education students. The state will require corrective action plans for the targeted districts. The remaining districts in the lowest 250 districts will be on alert status. Compliance monitoring for Least Restrictive Environment shall review whether meaningful educational benefit is being achieved, as well as for procedural compliance.
- Changes in the individual complaint resolution process to require interviews with parents and all persons they identify as having actual knowledge of the subject of the complaint
- Changes in the monitoring process to require consideration of the outcomes of all of the due process hearings and individual complaints in assessing a district’s record.
- Changes in the approval process of each district=s special education program to have it come after and be based on consideration of the special education compliance monitoring process
- Increased commitment to training and technical assistance by the state to assist districts in assuring that all teachers have the necessary skills and knowledge of best practices appropriate to the disabilities of the students in their class.
The settlement will be enforceable for 5 years, with a dispute resolution process requiring mediation before a dispute over compliance goes to a federal judge.
United States District Judge Eduardo Robreno is expected to set a hearing to consider approval of the Settlement after appropriate notice to the class. The settlement was negotiated with the assistance of former District Court Judge Louis C. Bechtle who acted as a discovery master and then mediator. Pennsylvania Department of Education General Counsel Larry White led the negotiating team for the state.
Historically many teachers who are not certified in special education are uncomfortable teaching students with disabilities and are not trained in the best practices for the students with particular disabilities. A Law Center review of special education students found that few students were receiving specialized designed instruction in regular education classes and that few of their education teachers reported having received training or technical assistance in best practices for teaching students with disabilities in regular classes. The Law Center=s investigation was assisted by Dr. Beverley Evans and Dr. Linda Lengyel at Duquesne University and by statistician Dr. James Conroy.
The lead plaintiff, Lydia Gaskin, is an example of successful inclusion. Born with Down Syndrome, Ms. Gaskin is finishing her last year in the Carlisle Area School District after being included in courses with college-bound students. Alydia and her classmates have all benefited from the challenges she faced. She is a full and participating member of her school community and she is a stronger, more independent person than she would have been if segregated in classes only with persons with disabilities, said her father Joseph Gaskin.