Gloves off: It's time for parents to exercise their legal rights
by Helen Gym on Sep 09 2013 Posted in Commentary
As we enter the school year, the purposeful underfunding and abuse of the state-run School District has never been more clear. Twenty-four school closings. Children headed to schools even worse off than the ones they attended. Every single school across the city crippled by the deliberate refusal to staff them safely and responsibly.
- Massive overcrowding, including reports of 48 students in a class, with no intent to relieve serious overcrowding for six weeks.
- Re-institution of over 100 split-grade classes, despite the fact this practice was eliminated for its numerous failures.
- NO information about specific public safety plans for the movement of 7,000-8,000 students across the District as a result of 24 school closings.
- NO full-time guidance counselors in 60 percent of all schools in the District, including half of all high schools.
- Roving counselor team serving special-education populations at the remainder of schools (one counselor per seven schools, or as much as a one to 3,000 student ratio).
- One secretary per school.
- NO assistant principal unless a school has at least 850 students.
- One nurse per 1,500 students.
- Zero full-time librarians.
Many of us have protested, marched, and testified against this, and we will continue to do so. But as the school year begins, it has never become more important for us to document and register formal complaints to record the neglect and abuse of Philadelphia’s children.
Parents are working with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia to document and report any and all complaints of the new school year. This process is for all students and families, not just students with disabilities or IEPs (Individualized Education Programs).
The Pennsylvania state constitution mandates that students be provided with a “thorough and efficient system of public education.” The state code requires that the curriculum in schools include the instruction of art, music, dance, and theater, as well as “comprehensive and integrated K-12 student services” and, in particular, guidance counseling services. There are also specific provisions requiring schools to have “sufficient numbers of qualified professional employees” to enforce the curriculum requirements. If children are being denied these services, you have the right to file a complaint, and the state secretary of education has a responsibility to investigate any complaints of deficiency.
Our goal is to document and illustrate the widespread and harmful impact of the District’s violation of the state constitution and state code. The purpose of this effort is not to file complaints against principals or school staff, but to focus on the mandates of the state constitution. It’s important to make clear that this is not a lawsuit. These are administrative complaints that are intended to document and make public how terrible the impact is on young people across the city.
We ask educators, teachers, students, and parents to file complaints as frequently and as soon as possible.
Take formal action
Beginning on the first day of school, and any or every day thereafter, if you encounter a problem with services, file a formal complaint.
- Call the state department hotline to complain (800-879-2301). This state hotline must log and record all calls. A state Department of Education employee is supposed to provide guidance to you. Please note the date you called and let us know as well.
- File a legal complaint with the state department. You can find those forms for any student (ComplaintForm-general) and for students with or seeking an IEP or G-IEP (ComplaintForm-IEP). These complaints can be emailed (with scanned signature), mailed or faxed.
- Make a copy of the complaint and send one to us or the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia for documentation.
Anyone can make a complaint. Individual teachers, principals, volunteers in schools, parents, and students themselves can make a complaint. Group complaints are permissible -- Home and School Associations, Town Watch/Safe Corridor programs, afterschool programs, preschool programs, or student organizations, for example.
Anyone experiencing problems in schools may make a formal complaint. The complaint does not have to be professionally written, but it should be specific, noting the harm done. It’s not helpful to say your school lacks a guidance counselor and you’re worried. Here are better examples:
- Child requested to see a counselor for any reason -- high school options, personal concerns, etc. -- but none was available.
- Parent requested interpretation services in a foreign language for something that needed to be addressed that day, but none was available.
- Child experienced bullying and wanted to file a complaint but no one was available to take their complaint.
- Split-grade class.
- Serious overcrowding of classes (over 35 students).
- Parent at a new school asks to see their child’s IEP, but no one can help them locate it within a reasonable time (one week).
- Parent of a child with a disability requests and is not given specialized transportation options.
- No art/music/dance/theater programming in schools.
- Parent wants his or her child tested for an IEP but gets no response from the school within a reasonable time (one week).
Your child does not have to be physically injured or severely impacted before filing a complaint. However, please make sure your complaint documents actual concerns. Need help? Contact us at the numbers below.
Many of us feel exhausted, worried, and dismayed by the start of the year. We are hoping this collective action begins a process for us to find new ways to address the long-standing injustices of our schools. As parents, we are angry and frustrated at the level of neglect that led to this chaotic opening of the school year. But now more than ever we must be vigilant and empowered. We must remain defiant about what’s happening in schools, and we refuse to stop until this situation gets fixed.
If you need any help or have any questions, please contact us. We are scheduling regional meetings around the city and would love to host one in your area.
Sonja Kerr, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia: firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-627-7100, x229 or 267-546-1319
Michael Churchill, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia: email@example.com, 267-546-1318
Helen Gym, Parents United for Public Education: firstname.lastname@example.org
Helen Gym is co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, an editor at "Rethinking Schools," and a contributor to and former board member of the Notebook.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.