Parents of children with autism in the Philadelphia School District are celebrating a victory this week.
In a preliminary decision, U.S. District Court Judge Legrome Davis ruled that the School District can no longer transfer autistic students to new elementary or middle schools without giving parents an opportunity to understand and discuss the decision.
Transfers are often necessary because not every school in the Philadelphia School District has classrooms and teachers designated to providing autistic support for every grade level. Some schools, for instance, may be able to serve kindergarten through 3rd grade, but lack resources for grades 4 and 5.
When this happens, the District's "automatic autism transfer policy" shuffles students to another public school that can serve their needs. The problem, though, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in 2011, is that the District has been acting with little to no input from parents, often at the last minute.
Parents and advocates say that this hurts autistic students who rely on structure and routine.
"One of my little clients thought he had been expelled," said Sonja Kerr, special-education attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. "A teacher sent home a note saying, 'I just found out you're not coming to school next year,' and the little boy didn't understand and cried for a week."
The law center, along with Dechert LLP, filed the suit against the District on behalf of 1,600 students with autism. After three years of arguments and deliberations, District administrators have agreed to cooperate with the preliminary settlement ruling made this week. A follow-up hearing is scheduled for June 3.
"What this sets in place is a process to ensure that parents know more formally, as quickly as possible, that their child may be moved," Kerr said.