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Special Education Lawsuit Pits Parents Against Boston Public Schools07:21

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State and federal laws have required an on-time transition to preschool for kids who need special education since 1991. (Flickr/cafemama)
State and federal laws have required an on-time transition to preschool for kids who need special education since 1991. (Flickr/cafemama)

Stop by the old Fifield School in Dorchester these days and you'll see classes full of kids with developmental disabilities receiving special education services. The Fifield was shut down last June as part of a Boston Public Schools consolidation plan. But it recently reopened, a move that came several months after some parents sued the school district for not providing required services to preschoolers with special needs.

“It’s been shown that if you deliver services to this group of kids at this early age, in the long run, you’re going to save money."

Boston attorney Michael Vhay

Among those students is three-year-old Sebastian Bradley, who has autism and — other than a few simple words here and there — is non-verbal. At home and school, he uses an iPad to learn.

Before he turned three, Sebastian was getting government-funded developmental services through two local non-profits agencies. When he was two-and-a-half, one of those agencies referred his mother to the Boston Public Schools system to be evaluated for preschool, as is required by law.

Dropping The Ball

But according to Sebastian's mother, Nathalie Armand-Bradley, the school district totally dropped the ball. She says months went by with no evaluations, and then Sebastian was offered a school that didn't have the services he needs. At that point, the district had missed the legal deadline for enrolling him in school on his third birthday. By the time the district did place Sebastian in an appropriate school in January, he'd gone three-and-a-half months without any services.

"It was horrific, the way that they handled it," his mother says. "There was a lot of, 'Oh, the reason why this isn't happening at this time is because we don't have the resources. We are short-staffed.' It's a sad excuse. It's embarrassing. It shouldn't happen at all."

And she says the delay hurt her son.

"He regressed profoundly, and it just left Sebastian without much guidance. It really affected him tremendously, and our family as well."

Lawsuit Fights Delayed Services For Special Needs Children

Armand-Bradley is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Boston Public Schools meant to stop the district from delaying placements for preschoolers who need special education. The parents suing also want the school system to pay for extra services, such as speech therapy, to make up for what their kids lost.

"This is the entry point," says Boston attorney Michael Vhay, who represents the parents in the suit, which was initiated by the non-profit organization Massachusetts Advocates for Children. "The obligation is very clear: having been identified as early as age two or two-and-a-half, these are children that Boston Public Schools knows are coming."

Since 1991, state and federal laws have required an on-time transition to preschool for kids who need special education.

Since fall, the city has added 20 classrooms to serve special education preschoolers. That has meant scrambling to hire or transfer teachers — and, in the case of the Fifield, reopening an entire school just months before the academic year winds down.

"We know that we're going to need two more classes within the next month, and we are prepared to open more classes than that before the end of the year," says John Verre, Boston's assistant superintendent for special education and student services.

Asked how the system may have broken down, Verre says he can't account for what happened before he took his current position two years ago. In reply to a more pointed question — were kids in need of special education services suffering because the Boston Public Schools failed to service them properly? — Verre says this: "I'm not going to answer that question. I will say this: that I know parents — because I spend a lot of time every day with parents — who feel that way. And I don't know whether that condition existed. What I know is that I believe many of these families now feel that our job is to make it right."

School systems in Massachusetts have had more than 20 years to get it right. Since 1991, state and federal laws have required an on-time transition to preschool for kids who need special education. But the state Department of Education has cited the Boston Public Schools at least twice in the last decade for being out of compliance. The state says no other district is currently in violation.

"It's been shown that if you deliver services to this group of kids at this early age," says Vhay, "in the long run you're going to save money, as opposed to not providing the education and then having to deal with it at the back end, in terms of high school dropouts."

Boston school officials say there are currently no Boston preschoolers on special education wait lists, in part because school department employees now work more closely with the agencies that serve those children before they're three.

BPS Assistant Superintendent Feels 'Burned' By Lawsuit

But Assistant Superintendent Verre acknowledges that some autistic students still aren't receiving one required evaluation — it's called applied behavioral analysis — and related follow-up on time. As for any other problems since he took over, Verre says that — on the advice of his lawyers — he has to be careful how he answers.

But he does say he feels stung by the lawsuit.

"I believe that I was making — I and my department — was making major efforts in the right direction, and that all of the accomplishments we have made this year we would have made anyway," he says. "I had been nothing but honest and forthcoming and transparent. So I feel like I was burned."

Some parents have seen improvements, but they're pressing on with their suit. And Armand-Bradley says she hopes her son will regain a skill he lost during his time without services: pointing so he can communicate what he needs.

"I'm confident that he'll be the greatest that he can be," she says. "He just needs the services. He needs a great support system. And he has it here at home. I just hope that his school will not deny him."

Changes to the system remain a work in progress. Boston school officials say they're still figuring out how many special ed preschoolers they'll have next year and how many classrooms they'll need.

This program aired on April 12, 2012.

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