Federal District Court Denies State’s Motion To Dismiss Special Education Segregation Case

The Education Law Center (ELC), together with co-plaintiffs New Jersey Protection & Advocacy, Inc. (NJP&A), the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network of New Jersey (SPAN), and The Arc of New Jersey, won a major victory this week by surviving a motion to dismiss for lack of standing and failure to state a claim in New Jersey Protection & Advocacy, Inc., et al. v. New Jersey Department of Education, et al. ELC, which is also counsel for the plaintiffs along with NJP&A and the law firms of Lowenstein Sandler PC and Loughlin & Latimer, filed the action a year ago against the New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE), the State Board of Education and the NJDOE commissioner, after unsuccessful attempts to negotiate a settlement. The complaint charges that the defendants violated both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by systemically placing students with disabilities in segregated, disabled-only classrooms. For years, New Jersey has had the worst record in the nation in complying with the IDEA and Section 504 mandates to educate students with disabilities in the “least restrictive environment,” alongside their non-disabled peers.

The opinion by District Court Judge Mary L. Cooper found that the plaintiffs had representational standing to bring the suit. Cooper reasoned that because of the high percentage of children in segregated classrooms, the plaintiff organizations had members with standing, and that the concerns raised in the case were central to the plaintiffs’ organizational purpose. In addition, Cooper determined that participation in the suit by individual organization members was unnecessary because the plaintiffs’ claims do not allege individual injuries, but rather allege systematic failures to include students with disabilities in general education.

Cooper refused to require the plaintiffs to exhaust administrative remedies because individual due process hearings would be futile in this case where the plaintiffs request broad systemic relief. She reasoned that if each adversely affected student were required to assert a separate administrative claim, the likely inconsistency of individual results would not remedy the gross systemic deficiency. Cooper concluded that “the administrative process is powerless to address Plaintiffs’ claims here, which concern New Jersey’s policies and practices . . . and … require structural relief.”

Cooper rejected the defendants’ suggestion that the plaintiffs do not have the right to challenge NJDOE’s failure to monitor school districts as defendants alleged that IDEA’s monitoring provisions are merely a “yardstick” for the U.S. Secretary of Education to measure state performance. Rather, in a far-reaching ruling, Cooper determined that IDEA does not “preclude private rights of action against the state for failure to comply with any IDEA provision, including the monitoring obligations imposed on each state …” (emphasis added).

Finally, the Court rejected the State’s motion to join all of New Jersey’s 616 school districts as “necessary parties,” as the relief the plaintiffs seek can be obtained without participation of the districts.

This victory will allow ELC and the other plaintiffs to have their day in court to dismantle the all-too-rampant vestiges of segregation in New Jersey’s schools.

Prepared: July 7, 2008

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