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Federal suit claims Springfield schools violate Disabilities Act

A federal lawsuit alleges that Springfield Public Schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act by placing more than 200 students with emotional disabilities in schools that provide sub-par education and that worsen their mental health.

The civil suit, filed two years ago but currently seeking class-
action status, alleges that segregating the students in three day schools — an elementary, middle, and high school — drives many to drop out and pushes some into the justice system, according to court documents.

It claims the schools subject the students, who struggle to regulate their emotions and behaviors, to inappropriate physical force and isolation in padded rooms. The suit also alleges that students face suspensions for minor offenses, threats of arrest, and actual arrests by police.

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The Americans with Disabilities Act requires the district to integrate the students into Springfield’s neighborhood schools, alongside peers without disabilities, and provide staff in those schools to address their behavior issues, the lawsuit says.

“We believe that we can prove to the court that students with emotional disabilities or with mental health disabilities and behavioral problems can be educated in neighborhood schools if the schools provide them with appropriate school-based behavioral supports,” said Robert D. Fleischner, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

One of those plaintiffs is the Disability Law Center, an independent group based in Boston and empowered by the federal government to protect the rights of the disabled.

Stanley J. Eichner, litigation director for the law center, said Springfield’s public day schools provide students who have emotional disabilities with “inadequate and inappropriate services.”

“The damage and harm is being stuck in a dead-end program that’s a dumping ground,” Eichner said.

A district spokeswoman said she could not comment on the claims because the lawsuit is ongoing.

The suit, filed in 2014 by the mother of a teenage student then at Public Day Middle School alleges the district “denies hundreds of children with a mental health disability equal educational opportunity and the opportunity to be educated with their peers without a disability.”

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Another Springfield mother, who asked that her family not be named because her son still attends the Public Day Middle School, said it has been more effective in addressing the 14-year-old’s behavioral issues than his previous school in Springfield.

But she said she is concerned that he is falling behind academically because he typically has homework only one night a week and teachers do not encourage him to work hard.

“They would push them to do their schoolwork more,” at the mainstream middle school her son previously attended, the mother said.

“Here, I don’t think they really care about academics at all. ... Where he was before, in the regular school system, he was getting homework every day.”

Her son is set to move to a mainstream high school as he enters ninth grade next fall, she said.

“Education is not the primary mission of the Public Day School, and students make little academic progress there,” the plaintiffs claim in court filings.

A Globe review of last year’s MCAS scores found that 82 percent of students at Springfield Public Day High School scored either “needs improvement” or “warning/failing” in 10th-grade math, compared with 53 percent of 10th-grade students across the Springfield district.

Statewide, only 21 percent of 10th-graders scored in the two lowest tiers on the math test.

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The Public Day High School’s scores for the English portion of the MCAS were not available.

The lawsuit has been making its way through the US District Court and attorneys for the plaintiffs are currently seeking class action status, which will allow them to represent all students — about 233 — at the public day schools, Fleischner said.

A final resolution in the case is likely months, if not years, away, and it is possible the student whose family brought the suit will graduate before it concludes.

Fleischner said the suit will continue either way.

“We have been spectacularly impressed by the fortitude and love that our clients’ families have showed,” Fleischner said. “Everyone we represent wants their child educated in an integrated neighborhood school.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.