Confined to a room for temper tantrums. Punished for not making eye contact. Sent to sit in a box in a hall. These allegations and more are part of a lawsuit filed by parents against a Crown Heights charter school where, they contend, their children’s learning disabilities have been ignored in favor of punishments that align with the school’s supposed “zero-tolerance” to bad behavior policy.
The lawsuit, filed on November 5 by the parents of five children at Achievement First Crown Heights, a K-12 campus founded in 2005, alleges that administrators failed to provide the children with a free appropriate public education under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The suit also names the New York State Education Department and the New York City Department of Education as co-defendants, alleging that the NYC DOE “turned a blind eye” to the conduct and its effect on the five plaintiffs.
Of the 817 students in the Achievement First elementary and middle schools, 11.5 percent are in special education, according to figures provided by Achievement First. There are 979 students at the campus overall, including the high school.
According to the complaint, students have not received the services they are entitled to under their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), or have also been disciplined for behaviors the plaintiffs say are associated with the children’s disabilities. The suit alleges that parents have been pressured to declassify their children as disabled, and that students with disabilities such as ADHD were given detention for infractions that included dropping a pen, fidgeting and speaking out of turn.
In one instance, the suit alleges, school repeatedly ignored a mother’s request that her son, now in fourth grade, be assessed for services. The child, now in fourth grade, has yet to receive any services. The school “nonetheless punished” the plaintiff for the following behavior: “failing to keep his hands crossed, failing to sit up straight, failing to track the teacher with his eyes, ‘failing to follow orders’ and expressing displeasure at being disciplined,” according to the complaint. In response, the suit alleges, the child was confined to a time out room, sent to spend the school day with the Kindergarten or first grade because “he was acting like a baby,” or forced to sit in a box in a hallway.
“The point of our lawsuit is that Achievement First has a certain educational philosophy and that philosophy causes them to treat all of these kids in a certain way, and the real purpose of the lawsuit is that they need to adjust their philosophy to accommodate children with disabilities,” says Stephen Ascher of Jenner & Block, adding that the charter network has “a rigidly disciplinarian approach to education.” Danielle Tarantolo of NYLAG said the group also sued the NYC DOE as it bears “shared legal responsibility” for the “systematic violations” happening at Achievement First.
In an emailed response to a request for comment, a spokeswoman for Achievement First, Leonore Waldrip, said: “We are reviewing the lawsuit and cannot comment on the specific allegations at this time. However, Achievement First Crown Heights is committed to serving all students at a high level, including those with disabilities. We serve a substantial number of students with both modest and significant special education needs, and our school leaders, teachers and other professionals work tirelessly each day to serve all our students well. Most of our students who receive special education services are experiencing real growth, and we have high levels of overall parent satisfaction. That said, we constantly strive to improve our program, and, in particular, have made significant improvements in special education supports in recent years.”
In an emailed statement, a spokesman for the DOE said the suit was under review.