Settlement could bring stability for Philly's autistic students
Transitions are tough for Joshua, an 11-year-old with a killer smile - and autism. His mother, Sharon Romero, worried how he would cope with the Philadelphia School District's policy of transferring autistic students to different schools without notice.
Transitions are tough for Joshua, an 11-year-old with a killer smile - and autism.
His mother, Sharon Romero, worried how he would cope with the Philadelphia School District's policy of transferring autistic students to different schools without notice.
So three years ago, the boy became one of four named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit challenging the district's policy, known among advocates as "the autism shuffle."
In a few weeks, U.S. District Court Judge Legrome Davis is expected to approve a settlement that halts the practice, ordering the district to notify parents of changes in school assignments for autistic children in kindergarten through eighth grade, and giving families the opportunity to respond to and plan for them.
"I am very happy - I don't feel as worried as I used to," Romero said in an interview. "No parent [of autistic children] should have to go through what I went through. They're already dealing with way too much."
The district has maintained the policy is necessary because some city schools are ill-equipped to educate autistic children at every grade level. Some schools, for example, have autistic-support classes for lower grades, but not for higher grades.
The settlement, which could be finalized after a fairness hearing next month, carries broad implications. The transfer policy now affects as many as 3,000 Philadelphia students, and the number of autism diagnoses is on the rise nationwide.
Sonja Kerr, cocounsel on the case and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia's director of disability rights, called the settlement a "significant step."
For years, she said, vulnerable students were blindsided by abrupt transfers.
"It's not just that the parents didn't know," Kerr said. "The teachers who work with these children every day and who are in the best position to help families figure our appropriate programs were not given the opportunity to do so."
Because of the lawsuit and other administrative actions, Josh, now a fifth-grader, has remained at Richmond Elementary in Port Richmond since kindergarten - otherwise, he would have been transferred at some point, Kerr said.
That would have been extremely disruptive, Romero said. Josh was nonverbal when he entered kindergarten and has advanced slowly but steadily.
Now, he's in a mix of mainstream and autistic-support classes, with the help of an aide. With graduation on the horizon, he has been accepted into Conwell, a magnet middle school in Kensington, and will enter classes there in the fall.
"If they had moved him, he would have never made as much progress as he has now," Romero said. "He was having a lot of behavioral issues, just switching from one classroom to another, even within the same school."
The terms of the settlement require the district to notify parents by January that their child could be transferred to a new school that fall. Officials would have to disclose the new school, if known, and inform parents of their right to meet formally with school officials about the transition.
The district will also have to produce official transfer letters by June, and to publish lists of all of its autistic support classrooms. Such lists were not made public in the past.
"We're very grateful," Kerr said, "that the district has agreed to settle and move forward in a positive way."
Parents affected by the policy are encouraged to attend the fairness hearing, scheduled for 9:30 a.m. to noon June 3 in Courtroom 6A at the U.S. District Courthouse, 601 Market St., Philadelphia.