These Oregon Students With Disabilities Say They Often Spent Just 20 Minutes at School a Day. Now They’re Suing the State

In a lot of ways, Aidin Schell is a typical 8-year-old. He loves Legos, The Avengers, and Jackson, the family’s Yorkshire terrier.

But sometimes, he has uncontrollable outbursts.

In first grade, Aidin was diagnosed with autism and placed in special education. Often unable to control his behavior due to his disability, school officials in his rural Oregon district placed him on a shortened school day. Some days, he’d stay in school for a few hours. But other times, no sooner would his mother drop Aidin off than school leaders would call her to pick him up and take him home.

Experiences like Aidin’s form the centerpiece of a federal class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday against the State of Oregon and its education department, alleging public schools in the state unnecessarily shorten school days for children with disabilities who experience behavioral challenges. Though no school districts are named as defendants, the suit argues the state violated federal law by failing to ensure students with disabilities receive the education services they’re entitled to under federal law.

“There were many, many days when Aidin would have been on school property for no more than 20 minutes,” mother Jennifer Schell said. Even after Aidin received outside treatment and his behavior began to improve, his mother said school officials declined to provide him with a full day of school. Fed up, Aiden’s parents enrolled him in an online school.

The lawsuit argues that educators frequently shorten the students’ school hours without providing services to address their behaviors and allow them to complete a full school day. The problem is most acute in the state’s rural districts, said Joel Greenberg, a staff attorney at Disability Rights Oregon, which filed the suit with organizations including the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and the National Center for Youth Law. Those rural schools, Greenberg said, often lack adequate financial resources or experts such as behavior specialists.

While not a plaintiff in the suit, Aidin is one of at least hundreds of children with disabilities across Oregon who are subjected to shortened school days, attorneys say. The plaintiffs include four children with disabilities between the ages of 6 and 14, all of whom were placed on shortened school days due to disability-related behavioral issues. Schedules featuring shortened school days often last months, even years, the lawsuit alleges.

Oregon Department of Education spokesman Marc Siegel said in a statement that the agency is ”committed to equity and excellence for every learner,” but he declined to comment further on the pending litigation.

While schools occasionally shorten a child’s school day for “bad motives,” Greenberg said, that’s not the norm. Often, he said, schools want to help children with disabilities but lack the resources to adequately address challenging behavior.

“The staff is frustrated, the child is unhappy, the parents are unhappy, and they have no real way to fix it,” Greenberg said. “The state can’t simply say, ‘It’s a district responsibility. Too bad for the parent or child if the district can’t figure out how and what to do.’”

Attorneys see a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling as a boon to their arguments. In 2017, the court set a more rigorous standard for special education services that requires districts to offer education programs that are “appropriately ambitious” and allow every child “the chance to meet challenging objectives.” The Oregon lawsuit argues that children have little opportunity to meet any objectives if they’re excluded from school.

“It’s hard for me to conceive of a situation in which a child can receive” a free appropriate public education, as required by federal law, “by going to school one or two hours a day for six months or a year,” Greenberg said. “That just defies common sense, reason, and logic.”

Selene Almazan, legal director at the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, said the issue of shortened school days isn’t unique to Oregon, but it tends to be more prevalent in states with large rural populations. Almazan noted that the lawsuit doesn’t focus on children who need shorter school days for acute health conditions, such as those who require chemotherapy for cancer treatment. “We’re talking about kids who challenge a typical school building” because of their behaviors, she said.

Oregon officials have been aware of the issue for years, but lawmakers have not taken sufficient steps to remedy the problem, according to the suit. In 2016, the state issued an executive memorandum that generally discouraged shortened school days for children with disability-related behavioral challenges. In 2017, lawmakers passed a law that aimed to scale back the use of abbreviated school days.

But those efforts, Greenberg said, didn’t do enough, and in recent years, his group has observed an uptick in complaints from rural parents. The first step to solving the challenge, he said, is data. He said state officials should collect data on the frequency with which schools place children with disabilities on shortened school days. State leaders also need to provide adequate support to school districts that lack the resources or expertise to address children with behavioral needs, he said.

Schell said her son Aidin, now in third grade, has improved behaviorally since he left his public school and enrolled in classes online. But Aidin’s public education experience could have been different, she said, had he received one-on-one support from an expert who could recognize his triggers before a meltdown. But before she would re-enroll her son in public school, she’d need assurances that Aidin could attend a full day.

“He is a third-grade student that’s never attended a full day of school,” Schell said. “I just think that’s completely inappropriate.”

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