In July 1994, East St. Louis School District 189 settled a class-action lawsuit in which it promised to educate students with behavior disorders—the district had been turning them away.
The district promised that it would not permanently exclude children with disabilities from school, and it would provide a free, appropriate education to all students with disabilities, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote at the time. In other words, it would meet the basic premise of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Nearly 20 years later, the Legal Aid lawyer who brought that case says East St. Louis still doesn't know how to do right by its students with disabilities.
"What kills me is, these kids have the same potential as your kid or my kid," said attorney Tom Kennedy, who still takes cases on behalf of students with disabilities at no charge. "It just makes sick: Think of these poor kids."
He's not the only one who fears for special needs students in St. Louis. The situation has become so dire the Illinois State Board of Education is now threatening to eject school board members and dissolve the roughly 8,000-student district all together.
Among the problems: The district is in urgent need of hiring some 23 special education-related employees, including psychologists, teachers, and speech pathologists. The district has known about the need for those employees, but it hasn't advertised a single one of the jobs in at least the last year, the state said in a letter to the district this month.
"The number and types of personnel employed shall be based on students' need rather than administrative convenience," state Superintendent Christopher Koch wrote. The district has to have a plan in place to fill the jobs by Friday.
There are also questions about the true number of students with disabilities who are in the district and how individualized education plans for some of them have gone unfinished for months, in part because of a lack of staff. About 975 IEPs for the current school year are in need of review.
In addition, students with disabilities are being disciplined inappropriately, the state said. Before expelling these students, or suspending them for more than 10 days, there is supposed to be a meeting of their respective IEP teams, and their parents are supposed to be notified. If a particular student doesn't have a behavioral intervention plan, one should be created. Apparently, the high school is disciplining students with disabilities without involving the special education staff.
Dissolving the school district could involve several actions, including removing all the school board members now at the helm of the district. East St. Louis could be absorbed by another school district.
A takeover wouldn't be unheard of in Illinois. State Board spokeswoman Mary Fergus said North Chicago School District 137 is under intense scrutiny and constant supervision by the state. Only about 13 percent of high school students are passing state tests in the district. Among other things, the board members there will get trained on what their roles and functions are.
In East St. Louis, neither the superintendent nor several school board members returned phone calls from Education Week. One board member, Carl Officer, told the Belleville News-Democrat that a state takeover could be just what East St. Louis needs.
It "may not be a bad thing," Officer said. "We may have to consider more oversight."