May 12 -- How does a boy, once a member of gifted programs, descend through a series of disciplinary actions and suspensions, ultimately to be barred from school entirely by the age of 14?
His parents say it was because of his emerging learning disability, and rather than deal with his problems, they say his school system, like many school systems across the country, simply tossed him aside.
The boy, identified as K.S.G. to protect his identity, is one of eight learning-disabled students who are part of a class-action lawsuit filed recently against the New York City Department of Education.
It's a case that education experts and advocates for children with disabilities say is emblematic of a disturbing trend that is becoming endemic across the country as schools grapple with funding cuts, understaffing and increased pressure from the federal No Child Left Behind program to raise overall performance levels.
"New York City schools and districts regularly engage in a practice of excluding disabled children from school and denying them educational services to which they are entitled," alleges the suit filed by a group called Advocates for Children in U.S. District Court in New York.
A spokesman for the New York City Department of Education declined to comment on the suit.
In K.S.G.'s case, the suit says, he began his schooling in a program for gifted students, but when his performance started to slip and he developed disciplinary problems, he was repeatedly suspended and transferred from school to school. In just the past year, he missed more than 50 days of classes.
Instead of having him evaluated to try to find the reason for his problems — as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, as it's called — his family says school officials have tried to ban him from school altogether.
His family says that if his school had him evaluated, they would have recognized that he suffers from severe brain trauma and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, as he has since been diagnosed by the New York University Child Study Center, and could have provided him with the program required by federal law.
Instead, at 14 years old he is barred from school, awaiting a hearing to try to get him back in.
"Disabled children miss weeks, months or years of school or they are moved without due process to 'alternative' schools or suspension centers where they are warehoused without legally adequate instruction," the Advocates for Children complaint says. "These practices violate the principles underlying the federal laws that were created to protect disabled children."
To Jail or the Streets
Advocates and researchers say the failure to provide educations for children with disabilities does more than harm a few kids.They say it exacts a high toll on society at large, even if removing some troubled students from class helps other children remain undistracted and focused.
There are more than 6.5 million students with disabilities in the nation's schools, and about half of them have learning disabilities, according to Jim Bradshaw of the U.S. Department of Education. He said that over the last decade the number has been rising, but that the increase has been in line with the increase in overall student population.
Researchers and advocates point to studies, including two finished recently, that find higher percentages of children with learning disabilities in the juvenile justice system than in the general population. They say that if schools were doing what federal law requires in terms of providing individual attention, they would not fall behind their peers and develop the frustration and anger that can lead kids to act up and create problems.
Once kids with learning disabilities find themselves in the juvenile justice system, there is little chance for them to get their education back on track and get started out in life on the right foot, researchers and advocates say.