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District required to provide notice of transfers to parents of autistic kids

A federal settlement sets forth a formal process, giving parents sufficient time to plan for their kids with autism.

THE Philadelphia School District will now be required to provide advance notice to parents of autistic children in elementary and middle schools if their kids will need to be transferred to a different school, according to a settlement reached in federal court.

In the past, the district would automatically transfer a student to a different school if his or her school did not have an autism-support classroom in the next grade.

Parents were neither consulted nor notified in advance.

That proved troublesome for parents with autistic kids, who have difficulties handling transitions.

Sharon Romero, whose son, Joshua, was among the four named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed against the district, yesterday told U.S. District Judge Legrome Davis at a final settlement hearing that "it's not only my child benefiting, but so many children are going to benefit" from the settlement.

The suit was filed in 2011 by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and Dechert LLP on behalf of city schoolchildren with autism. The four named plaintiffs were second- or third-graders in the Richmond School, a K-5 elementary on Belgrade Street near Birch in Port Richmond.

Romero's son was in second grade when she learned that he would have to be transferred to a different school because Richmond did not have an autism-support classroom in third grade.

"As a parent, I felt lost," Romero told Davis. "I didn't know where he would go, or what to do or who to speak to."

Because of the lawsuit and administrative hearings, Joshua, now 11 and in fifth grade, has been able to stay at Richmond because the district opened an autism-support classroom at the school for grades 3-5, said Sonja Kerr, director of disability rights for the Public Interest Law Center, after the hearing. Joshua also spends time in regular classrooms, she said.

Under the settlement, the school district is required to:

* In January of each year, alert parents of kids with autism in elementary and middle schools if their child may be transferred to a new school. Parents will be advised of the new school, if known.

Teachers will also receive notice of the transfers.

* By June 1 of each year, provide an official letter of transfer to the parents. Parents have a right to a hearing if they strongly disagree.

* By Oct. 15 of each year, publish a list of all schools in the district that have autism-support classrooms, and the grade range of those classrooms, on its website. Previously, there was no such comprehensive list.

Kerr told the judge yesterday that with these notices and the published list of classrooms, "We feel this process will give parents input, notice and an opportunity to plan successfully for children, with the school district."

The judge said he was going to approve the settlement, which he called "very fair."

According to the school district's attorneys, there are about 1,660 students enrolled in grades K-7 who require an autism-support classroom.

Parents with questions can call Kerr at the Public Interest Law Center at 267-546-1319.