If you are like many of my clients, you may have heard your school district mention the “PJ Case” at your IEP Team meeting. What is it, and why is everyone talking about it?
In 2002, the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut approved a settlement agreement and Consent Decree between the State of Connecticut and the Plaintiffs in a case by the name of P.J. et al v. The State of Connecticut. This was a class action brought on behalf of children with mental retardation (this is now referred to as “I.D.” or “Intellectual Disability”) who were being entirely or mostly self-contained throughout their day in our public schools, with virtually no opportunities for interaction with non-disabled peers. These placements were not being developed based on the individual needs of the students, as required by the IDEA, but rather, kids in this category of disability were simply being “dumped” into self-contained programs with little thought at all.
The purpose of the PJ class action is a noble one, and I remain grateful to the Plaintiffs in that case and their counsel for championing such an important issue.
The State settled the case with the Plaintiffs, and in so doing agreed to, among other things, take important steps towards rectifying the deplorable warehousing of kids with Intellectual Disabilities in self-contained programs. The federal court maintained jurisdiction, so that ongoing monitoring could occur to see what progress the State was making towards the goals of the Agreement. That is what is typically referred to when you hear “the PJ Settlement.”
What the State of Connecticut has done to comply with the settlement, however, is in my view no better than the actions which precipitated the original class action to begin with.
Basically, the State Department of Education has put an incredibly amount of pressure on school districts to eliminate ALL self-contained programming, for ALL kids with disabilities, regardless of the individual needs of the students. It is called “focused monitoring,” with highly detailed color-coded maps of the State reviewed with administrators on a regular basis, as quotas and percentages are bandied about as mandated by the State, all under the guise of compliance with P.J. An entire website is devoted to this by the State of Connecticut Department of Education (http://www.sde.ct.gov/sde/cwp/view.asp?a=2626&q=320792).
What is happening as a result of this extraordinary pressure is that school districts are “shutting down” any and all self-contained programs within our public schools, regardless of whether they are necessary or successful for some students.
The IDEA requires school districts to maintain a “continuum” of appropriate alternative placements for students with special education needs. The law contemplates everything from full inclusion to incredibly restrictive programs and placements. It presumes that the special education needs of some children may require more restrictive programming than the the special education needs of others. School districts aren’t supposed to be making broad brush determinations about what all children with an IEP need, or don’t, any more than they are supposed to make determiantinos about what all children with a particular disability require. Individual needs are supposed to drive programming.
However, what we have in Connecticut special education now is exactly that. Why? Becasue the State has forced school districts to close their self-contained programs. How do I know this? Because I have been told this by dozens of public school teachers. In addition, I have had more than one parent call me for because the school district has recommended moving their child out of a more restrictive program, even when the parents and school think it is working for that child, and they have been told by their school “we’re sorry, we have to because of PJ.”
Cutting off an entire model of special education placements is a violation of the IDEA, and undercuts the entitlement to a Free and Appropriate Public Education for those children who require a more restrictive environment. As a matter of law, the federal IDEA trumps any State settlement agreement to the extent that such an agreement limits an individual’s entitlements under federal law. I have told the State many times that I believe it is a matter of time before the parents of a child with special education needs who has been improperly excluded from a necessary self-contained program litigates against the State for how it is enforcing P.J.
I want to be clear, there is no consensus in the special education community, nor even the special education parent attorney community, as to whether all children with special education needs can or should be educated in self-contained programs. That being said, I think we all agree that we want as many children with disabilities as possible to be educated in the school and program they would attend if they did not have special education needs.
Ironically, many parents are more likely now to place their child in a private special education school, rather than watch their child falter in the mainstream in their public school because the self-contained program is not available in the building. Private special education schools are even more restrictive than self-contained programs in our public schools!
Which means that, due to how the State of Connecticut has responded to the PJ case, we may well be excluding kids more, not less.
I continue to hope that the officials who are carrying out the compliance with PJ think through the long-term results of their actions. The reverberations of the focused monitoring methods are being felt throughout the State. I hope it doesn’t take another class action to fix it.