Legal settlement requires Ohio to improve special education plans

The Ohio Department of Education must better integrate students with disabilities into general education settings, and must commit to improving their academic achievement, as part of a legal settlement finalized Monday with Disability Rights Ohio.

The settlement calls for particular efforts to improve special education students’ inclusion and achievement in 11 districts where experts found systemic denials of a “free appropriate public education,” according to the disability rights group.

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Dayton Public Schools is on that list, along with Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Akron, Toledo, Youngstown, Canton, Lima, East Cleveland, and Zanesville.

“This is a monumental day for Ohio’s students with disabilities, “said Kerstin Sjoberg, executive director of Disability Rights Ohio. “The plan will enhance academic achievement, promote inclusion and improve the supports students with disabilities receive in school. After years of litigation, this settlement will improve outcomes for students with disabilities in real and concrete ways and that is cause for celebration.”

The settlement was approved Monday by U.S. District Court Judge Michael H. Watson, but court filings show that the class action lawsuit has been ongoing for almost two decades, with the “current” phase of litigation having begun in 2009. Disability Rights Ohio was awarded attorneys’ fees and costs of $3 million.

Asked about the settlement, Dayton Public Schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said DPS “works to meet the needs of all students.”

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“Students with disabilities are important members of DPS classrooms and schools,” she said. “We will continue to provide the best possible services to each student based upon the individual educational plans.”

Paolo DeMaria, Ohio’s superintendent of schools, said ODE is pleased with the settlement, saying it aligns with the state strategic plan for education.

“(The plan) emphasizes our commitment to meeting the needs of the whole child,” DeMaria said. “We want to ensure that all Ohio students have the appropriate environments and supports to be successful, no matter what challenges they face.”

According to U.S. Magistrate Judge Norah McCann King’s report and recommendation, ODE will develop a plan for a redesigned state support system for special education, with a particular focus on the 11 districts.

The state’s plan must be developed in consultation with an advisory group of at least seven members with broad experience in special education, according to King’s report. That group will assess the state’s progress over five years, and the plan will include a path for changes if desired outcomes are not achieved.

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The state’s plan must focus on several things — targets for student achievement and “least restrictive environment” rates, increased focus on language and literacy, additional staff training, improvements in school climate and post-high school transition services.

The state’s plan also must include technical assistance to Dayton and the other 10 named districts to support the development of their own improvement plans, according to King’s report.

Ohio Department of Education spokeswoman Mandy Minick said ODE has one year to develop that plan.

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