- Associated Press - Friday, December 19, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - New Orleans public schools have agreed to ensure that students with disabilities are properly treated and educated while also being given the chance to attend the schools they want to attend, under a settlement announced Friday.

The Southern Poverty Law Center sued state and city school officials in 2010, alleging students with disabilities did not have equal access to schools in New Orleans and were not protected from discrimination. The law center sued on behalf of children with a variety of disabilities including autism, hyperactivity and bipolar disorder.

Under the settlement, the city’s schools would set up a system to identify children with disabilities, place them in schools and help them achieve educational goals. Individual schools would also be required to do more to make sure they are handling students with disabilities properly. An independent monitor would be put into place to track efforts to meet the settlement’s requirements.

The deal needs to be approved by U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey. The suit was filed against the Louisiana Department of Education and the Orleans Parish School Board. Since Katrina struck in 2005, most of the public schools in New Orleans were taken over by the state education agency and turned into charter schools.

The parties in the settlement issued a joint statement. In it, they said they “look forward to the day when all New Orleans students, especially those of historically disadvantaged backgrounds, have access to an excellent education.”

Once the settlement is approved by Zainey, education officials will give guidance to individual schools on how to put into practice the provisions of the settlement, the statement said. The federal court would oversee the settlement.

In its suit, the law center claimed the state violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Roughly 11 percent of the city’s students are considered to have disabilities, according to Leslie Jacobs, the founder of New Orleans-based Educate Now! and a former state school board member.

The original lawsuit outlined cases in which parents of children with disabilities were unable to find schools that could accommodate their children. In one case, the suit said, a parent was told a child “was no longer welcome to return to school because of a manifestation of his disability.” The child, then 15, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit with hyperactivity disorders.

Jacobs said that since the suit was filed the city’s schools have improved the way they handle students with disabilities.

“The settlement is putting a monitor in place to make sure the changes that have taken place don’t slide back,” she said. “To make sure special-needs kids are not pushed out of schools and that they have a chance to go to the school of their choice.”

She said evidence of improvement can be found in standardized test scores. She said that 18 percent of students with disabilities were proficient at state tests in 2008 while that number jumped to 44 percent last year. She added, though, that before the Southern Poverty Law Center filed its suit there were serious flaws.

“The big news about this settlement is that it is not requiring massive changes because those changes have already taken place,” she said.

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