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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

ACLU files suit against Washington state education agency on behalf of special education students

During the 2016-17 school year, a 13-year-old boy enrolled in the Yakima School District was suspended for 52 days, and was informally asked to leave school numerous other times, according to court documents. The boy qualifies for special education services and has diagnoses of ADHD, a mood disorder and an anxiety disorder.

That boy’s story is illustrative of a statewide problem, according to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington on Thursday. The lawsuit, aimed at the state’s top education agency, has been filed on behalf of special education students who have “been wrongfully disciplined for behavior related to the disabilities,” according to court documents.

The suit was filed in Thurston County’s superior court.

Nathan Olson, a spokesman for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said agency lawyers are reviewing the details of the complaint.

“OSPI is dedicated to the success and well-being of all Washington students,” he said in a text message.

The lawsuit represents students and families only in the Yakima and Pasco school districts. However, attorney Breanne Schuster said the lawsuit’s potential impacts are statewide.

“This is a problem we’ve seen on both sides of the mountains and all over the state,” she said.

The suit details five plaintiffs, all qualifying for special education services. According to the suit, these students were inappropriately removed from the classroom because of their disabilities.

“What it’s asking for is OSPI to basically do its job,” Schuster said.

Although advocates have raised concerns that special education is not adequately funded statewide, Schuster said the suit had “nothing to do with funding of special education students or the funding of schools at all.” Instead, the suit is focused solely on OSPI and what that agency is, or is not, doing.

Nikki Lockwood is a member of the Every Student Counts Alliance in Spokane and the mother of two children enrolled in Spokane Public Schools, one of whom has autism.

“We’ve already started this work (in Spokane),” she said. “But if the state can help in any way, that’s a benefit to all of our students.”

The stories relayed in the lawsuit are similar to stories Lockwood has heard from parents of special education students in Spokane, she said. And while she’s happy with the work that’s been done in Spokane around discipline, more is always better, she said.

“I’m glad there is some attention being brought to this form of discrimination against some of the most vulnerable, and amazing, students,” she said.

According to statewide OSPI data, students qualifying for special education services were twice as likely to be disciplined. And while special education students only make up 14 percent of students statewide, nearly 30 percent of all suspended and expelled students qualify for special education.

About 34 percent of all students suspended in Spokane Public Schools were special education students, even though 12 percent of the district qualified for special education services, according to data released by the district.

“We’re dealing with the same problems,” Lockwood said.