Volusia schools settle with feds over ‘systemic discrimination against students with disabilities’

The school district ‘denies any liability… or that it engaged in any wrongful act or conduct’

By: - August 4, 2021 7:33 pm
Boy sitting on the floor, sad

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services photo

A federal investigation that lead to a settlement confirmed that the Volusia County School District disciplined students with disabilities in an overtly punitive way.

They excluded the children from the district’s education program and they removed kids from their classrooms with use of suspensions, law enforcement involvement, and a mental health law, known as the Baker Act, which can involuntarily detain a student.

The U.S. Department of Justice looked into allegations stating that Volusia County School District “engaged in systemic discrimination against students with disabilities by relying on overtly punitive disciplinary tactics and law enforcement to address behaviors… according to the settlement agreement.

The federal investigation found that the allegations were substantiated, the settlement said, and it identified issues related to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The ADA prohibits the discrimination against people with disabilities.

The government and Volusia, in east-central Florida, agreed to a settlement “to address the district’s systemic and discriminatory practices that punish students with disabilities for their disability-related behavior,” according to a news release from the Justice Department.

The federal government and the district agreed to resolve the dispute without a lawsuit. But the district will have to make changes in handling disciplinary actions for students with disabilities.

As part of the settlement, the school district “denies any liability concerning the allegations in the complaint or that it engaged in any wrongful act or conduct.”

In addition,  “Nothing in this Agreement shall constitute evidence of any wrongdoing or liability” on the part of Volusia County School District.

The school district “denies any liability concerning the allegations in the complaint or that it engaged in any wrongful act or conduct,” according to the settlement.

Background

Incidents in Volusia were revealed in the spring of 2018, when the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida received a complaint about the treatment of eleven students with disabilities, including “nine of whom have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

That led to an investigation in the district, involving interviews with students, staff, parents and others that substantiated allegations related to compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits the discrimination against people with disabilities.

The complaint alleged that Volusia schools unnecessarily excluded students with disabilities from  education programs and services by regularly requiring parents or guardians to bring kids home instead of handling a behavioral incident at school. In other cases, law enforcement would get involved to remove students, even as young as kindergarten age, according to the press release.

In addition, law enforcement also would remove students with disabilities from school, through the use of the Florida Mental Health Act, known as the Baker Act, which can involuntarily detain a student.

The Florida Phoenix reached out to Volusia school officials for comment but has not received a response.

Volusia required to make changes

The settlement agreement involves 12 pages of changes on the part of Volusia Schools.

Some of the changes include:

/Developing training on the requirements of the ADA and the requirements of the settlement agreement,  which would be mandatory for all employees working with students with Autism Spectrum Disorder;

/Reviewing the Student Code of Conduct to ensure that it outlines when the district may involve law enforcement in for situations involving a student with disability;

/Publishing a copy of the settlement agreement to the district’s website and notifying all parents and guardians of the district’s agreement to the settlement;

/Requiring all law enforcement personnel working with students with disabilities to get training to cover: Autistic Spectrum Disorder and the characteristics associated with it, laws protecting the rights of students with disabilities, and appropriate de-escalation practices.

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Danielle J. Brown
Danielle J. Brown

Danielle J. Brown is a 2018 graduate of Florida State University, majoring in English with a focus in editing, writing, and media. While at FSU, she served as an editorial intern for International Program’s annual magazine, Nomadic Noles. Last fall, she fulfilled another editorial internship with Rowland Publishing, where she wrote for the Tallahassee Magazine, Emerald Coast Magazine, and 850 Business Magazine. She was born and raised in Tallahassee and reviews community theater productions for the Tallahassee Democrat. She spends her downtime traveling to all corners of Florida and beyond to practice lindy hop.

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