Citing “systemic failures to comply with federal law,” cooperating attorneys for the ACLU of Rhode Island and the R.I. Center for Justice have today filed a federal class-action lawsuit against the Providence school district and the R.I. Department of Education, alleging that hundreds of children with disabilities between the ages of three and five are not receiving critical special education services they are entitled to. The lawsuit seeks a court order requiring the state and school district to begin directly providing those services or else contract with other school districts and educational providers to do so.  

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides for early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities from birth to their third birthday. As a seamless approach to aiding this cohort, the law further requires school districts to offer a “free appropriate public education” to those children beginning with their third birthday. For many children in Providence, however, those services are not being provided. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Parents Leading for Educational Equity (PLEE), a non-profit organization that advocates for families in educational matters; three preschool-age children with acute special education needs who are not receiving the services that they should be receiving under IDEA; and the children’s parents.

Specific allegations of non-compliance with the law against the defendants include: failure to evaluate preschool children for special education services, or doing so only after months of delay, despite repeated requests by parents; a failure to timely deliver services identified in Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to address the children’s specific educational needs, leaving hundreds of eligible children without necessary services; and terminating infants and toddlers with disabilities from early intervention services on their third birthday without smoothly transitioning to the services that are mandated to be available to them after reaching that age.  

In emphasizing the importance of district compliance with that law, the lawsuit notes:

“It is critical that children with disabilities be identified in their preschool years or earlier so that they receive special education and related services that can ensure that they will have educational opportunities in elementary and secondary school consistent with their needs and abilities.  Defendants’ actions have harmed and continue to harm hundreds of current and future preschool students in Providence by adversely affecting their educational opportunities, learning, and well-being.”

The lawsuit argues that RIDE and the school district “have been well aware that Providence has not been providing mandated federal special education services at least since March 2022, but they have not taken the steps necessary to come into compliance with federal law.” In responding to admissions from the defendants that they do not have enough staff to comply with the law, the suit argues that “Providence could provide many members of the class with effective preschool programs by placing students in private day care, Head Start and preschool programs and providing supplemental special education and related services as well as training for staff at these programs.” 

The suit was filed by ACLU of RI cooperating attorneys Ellen Saideman and Lynette Labinger, and Jennifer Wood from the RI Center for Justice. The complaint asks the court to certify the lawsuit as a class-action and order provision of the special education and related services that federal law requires the defendants to provide.

Below are comments from some of the participants in the lawsuit:

Ramona Santos Torres, executive director of PLEE: “We unequivocally stand with parents/caregivers in their pursuit, by any means necessary, of the services their children need and are entitled to under federal law. We are facing an unprecedented crisis around special education for our youngest learners and we must act with urgency to do right by students and their families.”

ACLU of RI cooperating attorney Ellen Saideman: “Today, children with disabilities in Providence stop getting desperately needed special education and related services on their third birthday and their parents are told to wait patiently, for months and even years when we all know that timely services are needed to maintain the progress made through early intervention.  It is heartbreaking that such young children are regressing and failing to make progress when the law clearly requires timely special education services.”

RI Center for Justice executive director Jennifer Wood: “There is a reason that the federal special education law mandates and prioritizes a ‘seamless’ transition from infant/toddler services to pre-school services for the most vulnerable children with disabilities.  These children are depending on the public education system to provide essential services that support them in achieving critical developmental progress.  Educational services delayed are educational services denied for pre-school age children who need the immediate support that this lawsuit seeks in order to achieve basic developmental stepping stones.”