The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington has
Washington state schools chief Chris Reykdal says "we were surprised" by the lawsuit.
sued the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, arguing that students who require special education are wrongfully disciplined and forced out of public schools.
Students with special needs are suspended or expelled at a disproportionately higher rate than other students across Washington — special education students represent 14 percent of students, but make up 30 percent of suspended and expelled students, according to ACLU of Washington.
In Spokane Public Schools, special education students made up 13 percent of the student population, but a third of the total suspensions and expulsions halfway through the 2016-17 school year, according to numbers released by the district in February
"Washington's constitution guarantees every child in the state the right to a public education," says Emily Chiang, the ACLU of Washington legal director representing the plaintiffs in the case. "For the tens of thousands of students with disabilities who are suspended, expelled, or otherwise excluded from classrooms each year due to behavior related to their disabilities, this is an empty promise."
Washington OSPI Superintendent Chris Reykdal, reached by phone Thursday, says that "we were surprised" by the lawsuit. He says he hasn't had a chance to read through it yet, but that OSPI takes "very seriously" the work of setting the policies and legal framework for schools to use best practices for special needs students.
"It's important that districts get the support they need," Reykdal says, not speaking specifically about the lawsuit. "And we're prepared to do that."
The lawsuit claims that the special needs students are actually disciplined more than what is reported, since schools use an "informal method" of suspension where a school will call a parent and ask them to pick up their child from school early. The high discipline rates mean that students with special needs miss classroom instruction, according to the lawsuit, and "deprives these students of their right to an education in violation of the state constitution," and anti-discrimination laws. The lawsuit places the blame on OSPI for failing to monitor and supervise Washington schools. It specifically names Reykdal, who took over as superintendent this year, as a defendant.
"Defendants have long been aware of the widespread disproportionate discipline of special education students in these district, but have failed to take adequate steps to safeguard the rights of these students," the lawsuit claims.
The lawsuit singles out Pasco and Yakima school districts for wrongfully disciplining students because of their disabilities. One 13-year-old student in Yakima, the lawsuit claims, was excluded from class for 52 days over a span of two years because of outbursts related to his disabilities. The lawsuit claims he would be physically restrained for things like trying to board a school bus, or refusing to change out of gym clothes.
"Like any parent, I want my child to get a meaningful education," said Christina Madison, the mother of the 13-year-old student, in a statement. "By allowing him to be punished and pushed out of school for his disability, the state has deprived him of this fundamental right."
The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Superior Court for King and Thurston counties. The full class-action complaint is below.