- Associated Press - Saturday, May 24, 2014

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Nearly four years after the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit claiming New Orleans schools aren’t fulfilling their obligations to students with a variety of disabilities - including autism, hyperactivity and bipolar disorder - attorneys for state education officials and the SPLC are preparing for a closed-door court conference on Wednesday aimed at finding a compromise.

Filed on behalf of 10 students, the lawsuit claimed the state violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The state took over most New Orleans public schools after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Most are now run by independent organizations under charter agreements with the state.

Among the complaints in the 2010 lawsuit is that of the parent of a student identified only as “P.B.” The lawsuit says the parent was told the student “was no longer welcome to return to school because of a manifestation of his disability.” P.B. was 15 when the lawsuit was filed and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and attention deficit with hyperactivity disorders.

There also was the case of the mother of a dyslexic student who said she tried unsuccessfully to enroll him in five schools.

Without addressing specific complaints in the suit, Patrick Dobard, the head of the state agency that oversees most New Orleans public schools, listed programs and policies aimed at making sure students with disabilities are served. He cited statistics showing the overall performance of such students is rising in the Recovery School District, along with those of students without special needs.

Dobard said that in the 2009-2010 school year, about 38 percent of students with disabilities reached “proficient” levels on state tests. The rate was close to 60 percent for the 2012-13 school year, he said.

The lawsuit has bogged down with arguments on various issues. They included an SPLC motion to have the case certified as a class-action covering all students with disabilities in New Orleans public schools. A ruling is pending.

The state denies any wrongdoing or violation of federal law; Dobard insists that the schools do not turn away students because they have disabilities.

Eden Heilman, an SPLC attorney, said parents continue to complain.

“I can’t really tell whether there has been actual material progress because we still get calls pretty much every week from parents of kids with disabilities who have been turned away or who have been told to go somewhere else,” she said.

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