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Civil Rights lawsuits in schools on the rise

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Civil rights lawsuits against schools and universities have doubled in the last four years, and four out of 10 of these have to do with students with disabilities.

Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a data collection and analysis organization based out of Syracuse University highlighted the trend in a recent report.

Stephanie Paz, a junior psychology major, is from the Tigua tribe of the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, and has worked or been involved in the behavioral health field since she was 13 years old. She said her experience working within the reservation in mental health programs was different when compared to the Texas school districts she attended.

“I’d say as of right now it’s really, really good when it comes to their programming, it’s very involved when it comes to adjusting to those issues, as for the state board of education, don’t think that there is enough of that,” Paz said. “We make our own kind of guidelines and because we’re representing one minority, as opposed to public schools, where it’s not just native, but you have you have Hispanics, you have African-Americans, you have a bunch of ethnic groups.”

Paz said that it is easier for tribes such as the Tiguas to choose how their funding is used, as opposed to Texas schools that have limits on how their funding is spent. She said that student organizations and departments at UTEP should be working to highlight these issues.

Constance Wannamaker, a supervising attorney who specializes in special education, said this report coincides with her own experience representing parents of students in El Paso.

“Unfortunately, I just think that there are more violations, and funding has become tighter for schools districts,” Wannamaker said. “You know it costs money and resources to provide these services and I think we’ve seen some backsliding of school districts to work with kids to integrate to mainstream general education setting, and we’ve seen more siloing of kids into segregated settings, which is easier for them to do.”

Wannamaker is an attorney for Disability Rights Texas, an organization dedicated to advocating and representing people or parents of individuals with disabilities in Texas in court.

According to TRAC, if the trend continues for the rest of this year, civil rights cases involving education will reach the largest number recorded since courts started tracking these cases in 2011.

“It’s typically individuals with cognitive impairments and mental illness,” Wannamaker said about the cases she sees in El Paso.

Wannamaker also said tighter budgets are likely the reason the violations have increased, although she was unsure whether schools are doing all they can with the budgets they currently have.

“All across the board, we need to provide more funding across the state for special education,” said state Senator Jose Rodriguez when asked about the state of Texas schools. “We need to be on guard to not allow any more policies–like the one I struck down with a bill that education agencies implemented, setting a limit at 8.5 percent of students that can be admitted to special (education) programs, keeping a lot of students that needed it out of those programs.”

The Texas Education Agency had a longstanding policy, since 2004, to keep the number of children who receive special education services to 8.5 percent, according to an investigation by the Houston Chronicle.

The bill Senator Rodriguez is referring to is SB160, which would prohibit the TEA from “adapting or implementing a performance indicator in any monitoring system…that evaluates the total number of enrolled students or the overall percentage of the total number of enrolled students who receive special education services.”

The bill passed through the last legislative session and took effect Sept. 1.

The policy has left thousands of special needs children out of special education, leaving Texas with the lowest percentage of students receiving proper education in the nation. In 2014, the national average for enrollment was 13.5 percent, in Texas, the number dropped to 8.5 percent.

El Paso Independent School District enrolled 10 percent in special education in 2015-2016, according to their enrollment statistics. YISD enrolled 11.8 percent, Socorro ISD enrolled 8.4 percent and Canutillo ISD enrolled 9.1 percent, according to 2016 STAAR data.

But for those who are enrolled, they still might not be getting the individual attention they need.

“We see a lot of cases where kids are being segregated into self-contained classrooms, and not being given access to non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate, so we fight a lot of those cases,” Wannamaker said. “We are seeing a decent amount of seclusion where the students are being placed by themselves or perhaps with one teacher, or not even a teacher but an aid and that’s their educational placement. That’s a big problem because first off they don’t really have access to a certified special education teacher and then being provided with really any services because an aid isn’t really a teacher.”

Wannamaker said there are no requirements to be an aid other than to pass a background test and have a high school diploma.

Around half of the cases Wannamaker takes involve transition services, which are services schools are required to provide to individuals with disabilities with the necessary skills to move on from high school into college, community college or wherever they wish to go.

“School districts are frequently trying to push kids out when they are 18, saying that they’ve attained all of their goals, when in fact they may not have any skills, they may not be prepared for college, they may not be prepared to get a job,” Wannamaker said. “So what we have to do is go in and make the school district do additional assessments and provide additional services.”

Districts are required by law to make individual assessments to special needs students and provide transition services until they are 22.

In the West Texas federal judicial district, which includes  El Paso County, Austin, and San Antonio, civil rights lawsuits involving school is at a rate of one per 1.4 per million residents.

The West Texas district was ranked the 13th highest in the nation, with South New York as No. 1, New Jersey as No. 2, and the District of Colombia at No. 3.

Most of the remaining suits, 32 percent, did not specify the alleged violation, and 12.1 percent dealt with sex discrimination.

To see the full report, visit

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Christian Vasquez, Web Editor
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Civil Rights lawsuits in schools on the rise