JACKSON, Miss. — Disability advocates have sued the Mississippi Department of Education, saying state officials haven’t done enough to solve special education problems in the Jackson city schools.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, Southern Disability Law Center and Disability Rights Mississippi filed the suit Tuesday in federal court in Jackson.
Representing an unnamed 16-year-old student, they say the state has allowed Jackson Public Schools to get away with doing nothing to fix problems the groups cited in a 2010 complaint to the state.
The suit says the state “exhibited complete indifference to the plaintiff’s pleas for relief, and has failed to take appropriate action to compel JPS to correct the individual and systemic violations of the (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) that harm thousands of JPS’ most vulnerable students.”
The groups sued the state and not the district because they wanted to force the state to be more accountable for the failures of local school districts, Vanessa Carroll, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said in a phone interview.
The original administrative complaint to the state centered on claims that the district was overly punitive toward special education students, suspending them or sending them to the district’s alternative school. In a parallel action, the groups sued the district over the practice of handcuffing students at the alternative school, winning a settlement barring use of restraints.
“That’s a symptom of the district’s failure to provide appropriate educational services,” Carroll said of the suspensions and removals to the alternative school.
The administrative complaint resulted in an investigation of Jackson Public Schools, with the Department of Education agreeing with the allegations made by the groups. Carroll said the SPLC was happy with the investigation’s findings, but said the follow-through has been lacking. The 29,000-student district stonewalled the state for months, only acknowledging problems after interim Superintendent Jayne Sargent took over. Even then, the suit says, the district has made promises but has not followed through on improvements.
“Sadly, not a single one of the violations was corrected by JPS,” Carroll said.
Jackson’s noncompliance triggered an effort for the state to revoke the accreditation of its second-largest school district. But in May, the state’s accreditation commission gave Jackson six more months to solve problems.
Carroll said that she thought the threat of removing accreditation was ineffective in this case. She said stripping the district of its state seal of approval would do nothing to improve services to her client.
“That’s not going to miraculously transform the office of special education,” she said.
Instead, Carroll urged the state to rely on authority granted to it by federal special education law.
“Their corrective action needs to be more direct and more aggressive,” she said.
Carroll said she thought the state could give detailed orders to the district without taking over the district and pushing aside the current superintendent and school board.
Such a takeover, which requires the state Board of Education to appoint a conservator, has been the state’s way of turning around failing districts in the past. However, the state has been moving away from such takeovers, trying more to rely on accreditation sanctions.
Jon Kalahar, spokesman for the Department of Education, said officials were unaware of the suit and referred comment to Attorney General Jim Hood’s office. Hood’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.