James sues city for not properly tracking services for students with disabilities

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Public Advocate Letitia James

Public Advocate Letitia James has filed a lawsuit against the city education department, alleging that flaws with its special-education data system have resulted in missing support services for some students and the loss of millions of dollars.

The lawsuit centers on the embattled $130 million Special Education Student Information System, or SESIS. That system was designed to allow educators to more easily keep track of the learning plans created for each of the city’s more than 200,000 students with disabilities, and to make sure the students receive their mandated services.

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However, the system came under fire almost immediately after it was rolled out in 2011. Teachers reported that it was glitchy and burdensome, and the city comptroller blamed the system for keeping the city collecting millions of dollars in federal Medicaid reimbursements for low-income students with disabilities.

Now, James is taking those longstanding critiques of the Bloomberg-era system one step further by filing the lawsuit, which claims that problems with SESIS contributed to the city losing out on $356 million in Medicaid dollars over several years.

“The program doesn’t work and it never has,” James said at a press conference Monday. “The failure of the system has been one of the department’s worst-kept secrets.”

When former City Comptroller John Liu made a similar claim in 2013, city officials denied that Medicaid reimbursements are in any way affected by SESIS. On Monday, a city law department spokesman said the city plans to review James’ lawsuit.

The latest attack on SESIS comes on the heels of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation that found the city provides “inexcusable” accommodations for its young students with disabilities and has failed to address the problem for years. On Friday, the city formally rejected the findings that two-year investigation by the office of Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, the New York Times reported.

School staff working with special-education students are required to log information into SESIS about each student’s “Individualized Education Program,” or IEP, including details about initial evaluations, meetings with parents, services provided, and any changes made to the plan. But the system suffered from so many technical problems early on that teachers had to input data on evenings and weekends, which eventually led an arbitrator to order the city to pay $38 million in overtime to more than 30,000 educators.

Advocates have other complaints. Ellen McHugh, a longtime special education advocate and James’s appointee on the citywide council on special education, said parents should be able to access the system to keep tabs on their children’s progress.

“We can’t, as parents, access our child’s IEP,” she said. “We can’t, as parents, find out that our IEPs are being implemented.”

Maggie Moroff, special education policy coordinator for Advocates for Children, said that many students with disabilities do go without their mandated services. While she hesitated to lay the blame completely on SESIS, she said the city needs to make sure that no students fall through the cracks.

“There are lots of kids going on without their services,” she said, “and there doesn’t seem to be a system designed to flag that.”

The public advocate’s office has set its sights on the city’s handling of students with disabilities before. In August, James joined a lawsuit — which is set to start oral arguments in April — that claims the city is violating a local law that requires students with disabilities to be transported in air-conditioned buses when it’s particularly warm outside.

“We go wherever the facts lead us,” James said, “and, unfortunately, a significant number of complaints that we have received are from parents with special needs children.”

An education department spokesman did not comment directly on the lawsuit’s claims about SESIS.

However, he said that more school staffers had been trained to use the system. He also noted that the city has taken other steps to boost its supports for students with special needs, including launching more programs for students with autism and hiring 300 additional occupational therapists.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”