A federal judge signed off Tuesday on a settlement that formally ends the Philadelphia School District's policy of transferring elementary students with autism from school to school with no warning to their families.
The settlement came as a result of a class-action lawsuit filed three years ago by parents frustrated by the policy, known by families as "the autism shuffle." The parents, who all had second graders at Richmond Elementary in Port Richmond, were represented by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
The terms of the settlement require the district to notify parents by January if 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.
Teachers will also be notified that their students could be transferred.
The district will also have to produce official transfer letters by June and publish lists of all of its autistic-support classrooms. Such lists were not made public in the past.
Sharon Romero's son Joshua, now 11, was among the named plaintiffs.
On Tuesday, Romero told U.S. District Judge Legrome Davis that she was "extremely happy" with the settlement.
"It's not only my child, but so many children who are going to benefit," Romero said.
Before the lawsuit was filed, Romero said, she did not know how to explain to Joshua that change might happen at any time. Transitions are especially difficult for people with autism.
"I felt terrible for my child," she said. "I didn't know where he would go, or what to do, or who to talk to."
Davis commended both sides, saying the settlement was a "well-crafted and fair compromise" that gives families and schools the opportunity to plan for transitions.
The district, which has as many as 3,000 autistic students, had maintained the policy was necessary. Some of its 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 higher grades.
The settlement, which Davis said he would sign by the end of Thursday, carries broad implications. The transfer policy now affects all autistic students. Autism diagnoses are on the rise nationwide.
District parent Cathy Roccia-Meier said that the old policy was devastating to children, who "felt abandoned as they moved from school to school."
She is thrilled by the new policy, Roccia-Meier said.
"I think," Roccia-Meier said, "this will make a big change."