State faults Success Academy, NYC education department for violating civil rights of students with disabilities

Success Academy charter schools and the New York City education department have violated the civil rights of students with special needs, an investigation by state officials found.

The charter network failed to provide required services to students, changed the special education placement of children without giving parents the opportunity for input, and refused to follow orders issued at special education administrative hearings, according to the state.

Investigators also fault the city education department for failing to provide parents with legally required notices regarding changes to their child’s Special Education Program, or IEP, and for not ensuring that the charter network complied with hearing orders.

Both the city and Success Academy will be required to implement a list of reforms that will be monitored by the state, according to a decision reached earlier this month by New York’s Office of Special Education.

Success Academy spokeswoman Ann Powell pushed back against the report, saying the network doesn’t agree with all the conclusions and has been in “active discussions” with state leaders about their concerns. Powell attributed most of the findings to a need for better documentation, “not about any failure in providing services to children.”

The state investigation was prompted by a complaint filed in November by the advocacy group Advocates for Children and a private law firm.

“This decision makes clear that students do not give up their civil rights when they enter a charter school, and parents do not give up their voice in their children’s education,” Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children, said in an emailed statement.

The findings heap fresh scrutiny on the city’s largest charter network, which has previously been accused of denying services to students with disabilities — and on the city education department, which came under fire this week for shortcomings in how children with special needs are supported.

At the four schools covered in the investigation, the state’s Office of Special Education found that Success Academy did not provide required special education classes, small group instruction, or testing accommodations. The network also failed to follow the proper procedure for changing the services provided to children with disabilities by not holding required meetings with families, among other issues, and did not follow “pendency orders,” which require schools to maintain accommodations in cases where parents have appealed changes to their children’s education plans.

Recently, Success Academy has pushed blame onto the city education department for how students with disabilities are served, claiming the network often fights for supports for their students, only for their requests to be denied or delayed by the city.

State investigators also placed blame on the city education department, saying officials could not prove they have any process to monitor the implementation of IEPs at Success Academy schools — which raises questions about compliance at other local charter schools. City officials did not make sure that special education services were maintained while parents protested changes to their child’s education plans, and also “failed to ensure the provision of procedural safeguards to parents,” the state found.

An education department spokesman said it’s up to charter schools to inform the city when an IEP isn’t being followed. He added that the city is working to amend its process for collaborating with charter schools, but did not provide any specifics.

“We’re strengthening our work with all charter schools—including Success Academy—and the State to ensure students are receiving special education services and families are empowered to advocate for their children,” spokesman Doug Cohen wrote in an email.

As a result of the findings, the state will require Success Academy to submit a list of all students who have special needs, so that state officials can monitor compliance with the individuals’ education plans. The state also calls on the city education department to implement procedural safeguards for parents. And both the network and the city will be monitored for compliance with pendency orders.

You can read the state’s investigation and findings here.