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PATERSON PRESCHOOLERS FINALLY RECEIVE SPECIAL EDUCATION SERVICES, BUT PROBLEMS REMAIN

Newark NJ -- February 28, 2011

As a result of a complaint filed by Education Law Center (ELC) with the NJ Department of Education (DOE), preschoolers in Paterson have begun to receive some of the special education and related services they had been denied since the beginning of the school year. "My son finally started receiving speech therapy again, for which I am really grateful," said Rebekah Castaneda, whose son Gabriel is a four-year-old student with autism. "However, Paterson is still not providing him with both the speech he is currently entitled to and the therapy that is owed since September, and I have been told that he will not be getting a special education teacher in his classroom this school year."

On February 10, 2011, the DOE finally released its investigative findings and report on the violations detailed in the complaint filed on November 8, 2010. "The DOE's conclusion that Paterson illegally denied desperately needed special education and related services to preschoolers is a good first step," said Lauren S. Michaels, ELC attorney and Greenberg Traurig Equal Justice Works Fellow. Michaels, along with ELC Senior Attorney Elizabeth Athos, represents Paterson parents of preschoolers with disabilities. "However, the report suggests the DOE did not independently verify some of the district's claims, and the directives issued by the DOE to remedy the violations are woefully inadequate."

Among the DOE's findings are that Paterson failed to provide preschoolers with speech-language services and summer programs mandated by their Individual Education Programs (IEPs). The district also did not have adequate special education teachers to implement preschoolers' IEPs. The DOE also found that Paterson failed to evaluate in a timely manner preschoolers who may need special education services.

The Corrective Action Plan (CAP) issued by the DOE does not provide much guidance to the district on procedures to fully restore all services and programs or to compensate students for the programs and services they were denied.

The report and CAP do not indicate whether the DOE plans to lift its September 14, 2010 freeze on all spending and hiring in the district, except in cases of health and safety. The State's fiscal review of the district has not yet been completed, and the spending freeze remains in effect. The CAP does not indicate whether the DOE will provide additional resources to ensure that Paterson can comply with the law.

"Unfortunately, the vague CAP and lack of direction to the district create confusion and a continued denial of many of the special education and related services to which these preschoolers are entitled under state and federal law," said Michaels.

Castaneda, for example, learned from district staff that not only would there be no special education teacher assigned to her son's class, but that compensatory special education would not be offered until after the school year ended. "They told me that even though he is owed all of these hours of special education services, because it is so close to the end of the year, they would just give Gabriel a summer program instead. It is only February, and the school district didn't have any more information about this summer program when I asked for details," Castaneda said.

On February 23, 2011, ELC filed a reconsideration letter with the DOE.

"This is a great opportunity for the DOE to provide Paterson with a detailed plan to address the systemic violations of law that have occurred in the district and to ensure that it has sufficient resources to remedy the problem," Michaels said. "For the sake of preschoolers in Paterson, we hope that the DOE finally takes action to make this situation right."

Education Law Center Press Contact:
Lauren S. Michaels, Esq.
Greenberg Traurig Equal Justice Works Fellow
email: lmichaels@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x15