ACLU of Rhode Island
rhode island aclu

ACLU sues Providence (R.I.) district over deficiencies in special education program

July 20, 2023
The class-action lawsuit says Providence failed to provide critical special education services to hundreds of preschool-aged children with disabilities.

The American Civil Liberties Union contends in a class action lawsuit that the state of Rhode Island and Providence Public Schools  have failed to provide critical special education services to hundreds of preschool-aged children with disabilities.

The Providence Journal reports that the suit asserts that the school district has not its obligations under federal law to provide early intervention services to children between the ages of 3 and 5 who have sensory, emotional, physical, cognitive or language disabilities.

The lawsuit asks the court to order the state and school district to begin providing those services or else contract with other school districts and educational providers to do so.  

“It is critical that children with disabilities be identified in their preschool years or earlier so that they receive special education and related services that can ensure that they will have educational opportunities in elementary and secondary school consistent with their needs and abilities," the lawsuit argues. "Defendants’ actions have harmed and continue to harm hundreds of current and future preschool students in Providence by adversely affecting their educational opportunities, learning, and well-being.”

State and district officials attribute the problems to special-education staffing shortages nationwide.

The lawsuit has been brought on behalf of Parents Leading for Educational Equity (PLEE), a nonprofit organization that advocates for families in educational matters.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires early intervention services for infants and toddlers with disabilities from birth to their third birthday. It dictates, too, that school districts offer a “free appropriate public education” beginning with the child's third birthday, but for many children in Providence, those services are not being provided, according to the lawsuit.

The specific allegations of non-compliance include

  • Failure to evaluate preschool children for special education services, or the district doing so only after months of delay, despite repeated requests by parents.
  • A failure to timely deliver services identified in Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to address the children’s specific educational needs.
  • Terminating infants and toddlers with disabilities from early intervention services on their third birthday without transitioning them to services that are mandated to be available to them after reaching that age.

The lawsuit says 200 more children and families are affected by the lack of services..

The state took over the Providence school district in November 2019, stripped the school board of most of its authority and placed it under the control of Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green. She is named as a defendant in the lawsuit along with the school board.     

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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