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Can Special Ed. Teachers Be Forced to Stay in the Classroom During Strikes?

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Updated 1/7 at 12 pm, with district's response 

Los Angeles teachers are planning to go on strike on Jan. 10—but the school district this week asked a federal judge to prevent special education teachers from leaving the classroom. 

However, on Friday evening, U.S. District Court Judge Ronald S.W. Lew denied the Los Angeles Unified school district's attempt.

To use an analogy from the ongoing partial government shutdown, the district had wanted special education teachers and other employees who provide services to students with special needs to be considered "essential personnel," and blocked from going on strike. Teachers are planning to strike over a contract dispute; they've asked for pay raises, class-size reductions, fewer required tests, and more school nurses, counselors, social workers, and librarians. The district has offered a smaller pay bump and class-size reductions in some schools.

"A strike would be detrimental to students with disabilities and their families, depriving the students of the special-education support and services they rely on each day," said David Holmquist, the general counsel for the Los Angeles Unified school district, in a statement upon filing the request. 

The district's statement added: "In the event of a strike, these students' health and safety would be in jeopardy. They could get hurt, hurt themselves, or hurt others."

Los Angeles Unified was asking the court to enforce a 1996 decree that ordered Los Angeles Unified to provide appropriate special education services to students with disabilities. The district had settled with parents and students who said that students with special needs were being deprived of an education.

But Lew wrote that the district "is attempting, prematurely, to bring an unrelated party into a long-settled dispute without any explanation as to how [the teachers' union] would be legally liable," according to the Los Angeles Times

Lew said the district could potentially file a claim against the union later, but it would have to be after the start of the strike.

In a statement, the district said it will "take all steps necessary to protect the health, safety, and educational rights of students with disabilities, as well as of all students, including the filing of legal actions."

In filing the initial request, the district was making an unusual legal argument, and there's not a lot of precedent when it comes to special education teachers and strikes, said Jon Shelton, an associate professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, who has written a book about the history of teacher strikes.

Still, the 1996 decree was a unique tool for Los Angeles Unified: "It's not something that most school districts have to use as leverage," Shelton said. 

Protecting Students or 'Hail Mary Pass'? 

There are more than 60,000 students with disabilities in the Los Angeles school system. About half of this population is in need of "critical support to maintain their health and safety," according to the district. While schools will remain open during the strike and instruction will be provided by substitutes and administrators, the district has said that school sites might merge or relocate—which could have a negative impact on, among others, visually and hearing-impaired students. Also, there are about 11,500 students with autism in the district, and those students "typically do not handle changes in their schedule well," the district said in the court documents.

The district will most likely not be able to obtain enough substitutes to cover for these students, according to court documents. A strike would "severely hamper the district's ability to meet its special education obligations," LAUSD's attorneys wrote. 

While Lew, the federal judge, acknowledged that a strike could "burden" efforts to provide services to students with disabilities, he said the district's request "is a new and independent claim that would inject facts and legal issues that have nothing to do with claims that were settled ... over 15 years ago."

The Los Angeles teachers' union, which had dismissed the district's legal request as a "Hail Mary pass," cheered the judge's decision.

"If [Superintendent Austin] Beutner really cared about special education students, he would have responded to our proposals on special education class-size caps, which would relieve the burden of our overcrowded classrooms and overwhelming caseloads," said United Teachers Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl, in a statement after the initial court filing. "It is disingenuous to recognize the value of our teachers only in the role they play during a strike while working to undermine them as they seek better working conditions for themselves and learning conditions for their students through the bargaining process."

Still, Shelton, the Wisconsin professor, said the district's request could weaken public support for striking teachers. 

"If nothing else, it changes the conversation, or at least gives ammunition to the conversation that teachers are harming the most vulnerable students," he said. 

In a statement after the judge's ruling, Caputo-Pearl said the request was intended to spread "fear and confusion among the public, our members, special education students, and families."

"The scare tactics must end now," he added.

After district officials called for UTLA leaders to return to the bargaining table, the union agreed to resume contract negotiations on Monday "if the district has a legitimate and clear offer for us to consider." The union had called the district's last offer "insulting," this would be a last-ditch attempt to come to a resolution before a strike. Still, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said he thinks "the strike is all but inevitable." 

There hasn't been a teachers' strike in Los Angeles—the nation's second-largest district—since 1989. 

Image: UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl, left, joins teachers at a rally in downtown Los Angeles. —Damian Dovarganes/AP

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