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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Federal Judge Rejects Class Action Suit Filed by Springfield (Mass.) Special Needs Student

From MassLive

By Peter Goonan
December 17, 2016

SPRINGFIELD -- U.S. District Court Judge Mark G. Mastroianni issued a ruling Friday that rejects a class action suit against the city and School Department that sought to end a public day school program for students with mental health issues.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Mastroianni, shown in file photo, has denied a
class action suit against the Springfield School Department, that sought to end
the Springfield Public Day School program for students with mental health issues.

The ruling was praised by school officials who called it a "vindication" of the public day school program. City and school officials denied the students were being improperly segregated from the regular classrooms and defended the programs and services being provided in the day school program.

"It's a significant win not just for the district but for all public schools in Massachusetts and their special education students," said Melinda Phelps, a lawyer representing the School Department. "It's a vindication for the hard work day in and day out of the Springfield Public School Program."

School Committee Vice-Chairman Christopher Collins agreed, saying it upholds the Springfield approach and the people providing services from the principals down to the counselors and teachers.

The civil suit was initially filed by a parent of a teen with mental health issues, with the student identified in the suit as S.S. It was filed on his behalf and "other similarly situated students" and by the Parent/Professional Advocacy League and the Disability Law Center.

The motion for "Class Certification" was denied by Mastroianni in Friday's ruling.

City lawyers including City Solicitor Edward Pikula "vigorously disputed" claims by the plaintiffs that students attending the public day schools "are not only segregated from nondisabled students, but also receive educational services that are demonstrably inferior to those offered at neighborhood schools, are unable to access extracurricular activities available in neighborhood schools, and are subjected to dangerously punitive discipline."

  • Documents filed this summer include internal emails, affidavits from parents and expert testimony.

Pikula, in arguments before Mastroianni, said the plaintiffs had essentially repurposed a claim after it was rejected by a state board of special education appeals. In addition, Pikula said a judge in that forum ruled the city had accommodated "S.S" and developed an individual education plan that was "the least restrictive" according to 2015 hearing.

Mastroianni, in summarizing the case, said that approximately 1 percent of the students in the Springfield public schools are placed in the public day schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels. A total of 246 students were in the program as of May 1, 2016.

The American With Disabilities Act bars public entities from discriminating against a "qualified individual with a disability," or excluding them from participation or denying them from the benefits and services of a public entity, the summary stated. Protections are also provided in the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA), he said.

In the class certification sought, however, not all members of the suit had exhausted the process for administrative remedies provided under IDEA guidelines, Mastroianni said.

"The exhaustion requirement provides one basis for denying Plaintiffs' Motion for Class Certification," Mastronianni said. "Some of the same concerns that lead the court to that decision also demonstrate that Plaintiffs have not met their burden to establish the elements required for class certification."

Mastroianni also cited a statute that a class action suit is an "exception to the usual rule" of individual litigation. The exception is justified "only when there is a class representative who is part of the class and shares the same interest and injury as other class members," he said.

The plaintiffs were not able to meet that burden, he said.

The lawsuit had sought to restructure special education for children with mental illnesses to school-based behavioral services.

The court ruling said there was "insufficient evidence" that such school-based behavioral services "could provide a single remedy applicable to the whole class."

"Even if these services could, in theory, provide a universally positive outcome, the diversity of the circumstances affecting members of the proposed class will create a myriad of unique challenges that will have to be overcome on a study by student basis in order to implement each of these entwined services," Mastroianni said.

Judge Mastroianni's ruling in lawsuit against Springfield Schools by The Republican/MassLive.com on Scribd.

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