Friday, April 29, 2011

Parents of Disabled Children Sue Tulsa School Districts For Denying State-Mandated Scholarships

This week, parents of thirteen special needs children filed suit in Tulsa federal district court against four public school districts in the Tulsa area that have denied the children state-mandated scholarships that will help them get specialized education.
The lawsuit, entitled Kimery v. Broken Arrow Public Schools, challenges the decision by Broken Arrow, Jenks, Tulsa, and Union school districts to defy Oklahoma's Lindsey Nicole Henry Scholarship for Students with Disabilities Program Act (commonly known as “H.B. 3393”). The Act guarantees parents of children with special needs a scholarship that enables them to send their children to private schools that can tailor instruction to those needs.

The disabled children in the lawsuit suffer from several different disabilities, including autism, Asperger's syndrome (a disorder on the autism spectrum), sensory processing disorders, significant learning disabilities, and many other disorders and disabilities. All of the children were suffering academically in public school. And most of the children have been bullied severely by other children in the public school population. One student was beaten with nunchucks while in public school. Another cried himself to sleep nearly every night due to constant bullying. In some cases the children have been merely “warehoused” by the school districts rather than receiving instruction.

The school districts claim that the scholarships law violates parts of the Oklahoma Constitution, but they have also frequently expressed concerns about losing the additional state funding that follows special needs children. The school districts are the only school districts out of 541 statewide that announced that they would not comply with state law. After being pressured by the state’s Attorney General, the districts changed their position, stating that they would comply with the law and would instead seek a declaratory judgment regarding the constitutionality of the law. But that never happened. Instead, the parents in the lawsuit allege, the districts retaliated against them for seeking scholarships by reducing their awards and significantly complicating their attempts to claim those benefits.

Eric Rassbach, the Becket Fund’s National Litigation Director, said “These school districts put the ‘heartless’ in ‘heartless bureaucrat.’ What kind of public servant holds special needs kids hostage to shore up the school district budget? Are these children supposed to be bullied every day so Jenks Public Schools can hold on to a few extra dollars?” Indeed, these special needs students have been in limbo for nearly four months since the school district announced that they would try to comply with state law. Their on going eligibility for program benefits–the source of their educational resources–has been in doubt.

Some of the provisions relied on by the school districts are the notorious Blaine Amendments. Blaine Amendments are state constitutional provisions enacted in forty states during the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century that were designed to thwart the growth of the developing Catholic community in the United States. Today, the Blaine Amendments are interpreted to prohibit all sorts of funding to religious individuals and institutions solely on the basis of their religious identity.

Meir Katz, a Legal Fellow at the Becket Fund and national expert on the Blaine Amendments, said, “These school districts have taken a bigoted law originally designed to punish Catholics and are now using it to punish some of Oklahoma's most vulnerable students.” “What's ironic is that most of these students aren't even trying to attend a religious school. The Blaine Amendments have become a license for governmental abuse; it is about time that the abuse be brought to an end,” he added.
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