Advocates Mount Challenge to Protect Rights of NJ’s Most Vulnerable Students
In a radical change to longstanding practice, the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) is proposing to end the requirement that school districts provide quality, needs-based alternative education settings for at-risk students who are removed from general education.
In comments on the proposal, Education Law Center and other advocates strongly urge the State Board of Education to reject NJDOE’s efforts to delete existing rules requiring supports for at-risk and other vulnerable students. On the chopping block are all regulations governing alternative education, as well as other significant protections for students, which fall under the Department’s Programs to Support Student Development. These regulations govern student health and safety; student discipline; harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB); and other areas that affect student development.
Current regulations requiring districts to implement alternative education programs mandate that teacher certification and curriculum standards must be the same as those required in general education programs. These rules also set maximum student-teacher ratios and ensure the availability of comprehensive student support services. The rules are designed to comply with NJ Supreme Court and State Board rulings mandating alternative programs to ensure a “thorough and efficient” education for students at risk of school failure and those removed from general education for disciplinary reasons.
“By doing away with these regulations, the Department is inviting significant and damaging cutbacks in vital alternative education programs, especially given substantial funding cuts in the last few years. There also will be vast disparities in the quality of these programs from district to district,” said ELC Senior Attorney Elizabeth Athos.”Over ten years ago, the State made a commitment to our most at-risk students, and we urge them to stand by that commitment.”
“The Department’s proposal [to eliminate alternative education regulations] would also place New Jersey out of step with national best practices that seek to minimize school push-out,” said attorney Katherine Burdick, an Equal Justice Works fellow sponsored by the Greenberg Traurig law firm, who prepared comments on the regulations for the Juvenile Law Center, a national public interest law firm for children.
ELC also is sharply critical of the NJDOE’s proposal to delete an existing requirement that a district’s response to HIB must, at a minimum, include support for targeted students and corrective action in the case of documented, systemic HIB problems.
“Elimination of this provision sends a clear, but mistaken, message to school districts that providing support to targeted students and addressing systemic problems is no longer mandatory under NJ’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, even though that is how the NJDOE has interpreted the law for the past eight years,” said Athos.
ELC also endorsed the comments of the New Jersey Special Education Practitioners (NJSEP), a statewide group of attorneys and advocates representing parents and students in special education cases. NJSEP joined ELC in opposing the elimination of the alternative education regulations and objected to several other aspects of the NJDOE’s proposal, including the removal of requirements for community involvement in the development of school district policies addressing student alcohol and drug abuse and student discipline and the reduction of services for students receiving home instruction due to health conditions.
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