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Mississippi Ed. Agency Sued Over Lingering IDEA Violations in Jackson

Some 18 months after the Mississippi Department of Education found that Jackson public schools were violating federal special education law, the department has failed to enforce its own decision, according to a lawsuit filed today in federal district court.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, Disability Rights Mississippi, and the Southern Disability Law Center sued the Mississippi Department of Education for failing to ensure that students with disabilities in the 30,000-student Jackson public school system get the education and services federal law requires. In a Nov. 2010 letter, the department listed a number of violations by the district, which enrolls about 3,000 students with disabilities. The district had to start working on the violations right away, and had a year to address everything.

So far, the advocacy groups say, nothing has changed in Jackson.

A Mississippi education department spokesman said today he was unaware of the suit.

In the fall of 2010, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint with the state education agency about the Jackson district, saying that students with behavioral disorders were more likely to be suspended in or out of school or sent to a district alternative school than other students and were not getting the services they needed to address their disorders.

"It seemed like an unending cycle for many of these kids," said Vanessa Carroll, a senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In November 2010, after visiting the district, the education department said it found that students with behavioral and emotional disabilities in Jackson's schools did not receive any related support services to meet their needs, such as counseling. The agency found that Jackson was in violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act provision that students with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education. In addition, students' individualized education programs were not regularly updated—in some cases meetings of the IEP team weren't convened until just before a student was to be referred to an alternative school.

"We were actually very pleased with the investigation," Carroll said. "We felt like they took it seriously. They did substantiate each of the allegations that we made."

But it was disheartening, she said, to watch a year go by with no action from the district. Now almost two years have gone by since her organization's original complaint.

"At this point, we felt like we needed to take action to hold the [Mississippi Department of Education] accountable," Carroll said, adding that students with disabilities who are repeatedly subjected to discipline measures without any interventions may quickly become disillusioned with school and drop out. The district reported a 9.1 percent graduation rate for special education students during the 2010-11 school year.

In May, the same day a new superintendent signed on to take charge in Jackson, a state accreditation commission gave the district until Nov. 1 to address the special education problems or face losing its accreditation, the Mississippi Link reported.

But that isn't a solution in the Southern Poverty Law Center's eyes, Carroll said.

"Stripping the district of accreditation is not going to do anything to improve the outcomes for students with disabilities," she said. "That creates a lot of chaos in the district."

And the state and district would still be obligated to see that students' needs are addressed.

"We'd rather see these students' needs being met," she said. "We do want to come quickly to some sort of resolution."

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