Citing it as a quintessential example of the enormous difficulties parents often face in ensuring that schools meet their obligations to serve and protect the educational rights of  children with disabilities, the ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a complaint against the Bristol-Warren School District on behalf of a six-year-old child who, the complaint alleges, for months has not been given the free and appropriate education (FAPE) to which he is clearly entitled due to his serious special education needs.

Last June, a clinical team at Bradley Hospital recommended a special therapeutic educational environment for the child, who has a disability and had already engaged in disability-related behavior, sometimes manifested by physically aggressive conduct, that had led to his expulsion from several childcare programs. However, the school district failed to place him in any program at all or provide any educational services to him throughout the summer of 2022. After a summer without any special education, the district placed him in his local elementary school without adequate supports at the beginning of the school year, which led to a series of suspensions. The last suspension occurred on December 19th after the child allegedly assaulted another student. He has been out of school since then.

The complaint notes that, on that date, the child was interrogated by a police officer about the incident without his parents present, and his alleged admission to the allegations against him led to his indefinite suspension. While the child is finally awaiting a start date in a therapeutic educational program, he has been provided no education for the past two months. The district’s failure to follow special education laws with respect to his unlawful removal, the complaint claims, has resulted in  a complete deprivation  of educational services to which he is entitled.

The complaint alleges systematic failures by the school district to provide the child with the FAPE the district is obligated to provide him, and further claims violations of the federal Rehabilitation Act and Americans with Disabilities Act. The complaint charges the school district with, among other things, failing to provide him with the reasonable educational accommodations he needs in light of his disabilities, infringing his rights to due process by imposing discipline without providing proper notice, and violating a state law that restricts police interrogation of young children in elementary school.

The complainant also seeks numerous forms of relief on the child’s behalf, including a finding that the district has violated his rights in numerous respects; the issuance of an order requiring the district to develop an appropriate IEP that places him in the therapeutic education environment that had been recommended nine months ago; an order providing him compensatory education for the educational time he has missed; and a ruling requiring school staff to undergo professional development training and oversight of discipline procedures for students with disabilities.

The complaint was filed today with the Rhode Island Department of Education by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Christine Marinello and Ellen Saideman. Although the ACLU routinely receives complaints from parents about schools failing to honor their child’s special education needs, the ACLU’s limited resources generally prevent it from getting involved in these issues. However, the flagrant  nature of the school district’s disregard of the young child’s rights in this instance prompted an exception that has led to the filing of this complaint.

ACLU cooperating attorney Marinello said today: “This is one of the more egregious cases I have seen where a child clearly needed more supports. Although we understand it takes time to find an appropriate placement, months of exclusion without any education is inexcusable. We filed this case to get this student the compensatory education he deserves, but to also seek staff training to ensure adherence to disciplinary due process.” 

Attorney Saideman added: “The school district’s failure to provide this student with appropriate educational services has harmed this student as well as his peers.  It is crucial that students with disabilities get services early.   Behavioral experts can develop appropriate programs that can extinguish problem behaviors and teach students how to communicate their needs in a socially acceptable way.”

ACLU of RI executive director Steven Brown stated: “It is important for parents to know that they have legal remedies to vindicate their child’s right to a free and appropriate education. We hope our involvement in a case like this will encourage families to take action on their own to challenge violations of their children’s rights in the school setting.”

A copy of the complaint can be found here. Due to the sensitive nature of the complaint and the age of the child, the name of the complainant has been redacted.