Newman Aaronson Vanaman LLP has been counsel for the Plaintiff class in the Chanda Smith Lawsuit for more than 20 years.
In 1996, Newman Aaronson Vanaman LLP, Disability Rights California, and the ACLU of Southern California reached a historic settlement in the case of Chanda Smith v. Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The class action lawsuit had been filed three years earlier to challenge the dismal educational outcomes and limited life prospects for students with disabilities in LAUSD. Special education students were disproportionately likely to be suspended or expelled, or tracked to restrictive educational placements and segregated campuses where they had no interactions with typically developing peers. Stark racial disparities in special education revealed the over-identification of minority students, underfunding and indifferent provision of services to those same students. Parent involvement was minimal and only a few thousand Individual Education Plans were translated into parents’ native languages each year.
The 1996 settlement resulted in a detailed consent decree, which has been modified several times over the decades-long history of the case. The settlement also included the appointment of an Independent Monitor, who has overseen the district’s progress in meeting the goals of the settlement.
On August 9, 2019, the federal court approved an agreement between attorneys for LAUSD and the Plaintiffs to end federal court oversight of special education services at LAUSD on December 31, 2019. The current Independent Monitor, Dr. David Rostetter, will issue a final report on December 15, 2019, to help guide the District in ensuring compliance with all laws in the future. The Office of the Independent Monitor issued regular reports and assessments over the decades of court review that have tracked the District’s progress in achieving the outcomes in the Modified Consent Decree. After termination of the lawsuit, DRC will maintain materials from the website for the Independent Monitor as a historical resource. http://oimla.com/
“We appreciate LAUSD’s commitment to the many reforms and initiatives resulting from the Chanda Smith case. We are confident that the district will continue this progress long after court oversight ends,” said Catherine Blakemore, DRC’s Executive Director and one of the attorneys who helped craft the original consent decree along with Robert Myers of Newman Aaronson Vanaman LLP and Mark Rosenbaum who was then with the ACLU Foundation of Los Angeles. Mr. Myers observed that “the District has achieved most of the data-driven outcomes in the Modified Consent Decree, thanks in large part to the tireless efforts of Dr. Rostetter and the Office of the Independent Monitor.”
The Chanda Smith litigation was filed in 1993 to address LAUSD’s failure to comply with its obligations to special education students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and other federal laws. Two independent experts, appointed as part of a mutually agreed dispute resolution process, determined that LAUSD’s programs failed to comply students with its obligations under special education laws in a range of significant ways.
The United States District Court approved a consent decree in 1996. The initial decree had two consent decree administrators – Dr. Mary Margaret Kerr and Dr. Louis Barber. Their focus was to increase the capacity of the District to serve children with disabilities by adding personnel and adopting new plans and policies. This laid the ground-work for performance-based objectives established in a Modified Consent Decree in 2004.
The litigation has resulted in dramatic improvements in the District’s provision of services to special education students. It has also guided the improvement and development of charter schools’ programs for students with disabilities. Across all district schools, some of the main improvements are greater fidelity with provision of necessary services, massive improvement in timely identification and evaluation of students, the provision of individual transition plans to many more students, and huge decreases in discipline, suspensions and expulsions, over-identification of minority students, and segregation of special education students.
The litigation also facilitated huge improvements in how parents are able to interact with the District to support their children. When the litigation was commenced in 1993, LAUSD translated only a few thousand Individual Education were translated into parents’ native languages. By 2017-18, LAUSD responded promptly to 99.9% of all parents’ requests for translations – a total of 44,818 IEPs. This alone is a remarkable achievement that few other school districts can demonstrate.
The District’s division of special education has developed a sophisticated system to receive, track, and resolve special education questions, concerns, and complaints. A largely parent-staffed and supported Complaint Response Unit has helped resolved thousands of complaints without parents being forced into formal dispute resolution procedures. Additionally, the District has adopted publicly accessible policy and procedure manuals and other information for parents that is all readily accessible on-line. Finally, the recently implemented Parent Portal was developed to provide up-to-date access for all parents about their students’ grades as well as current information about the provision of special education services.
The lawsuit also resulted in improved physical accessibility of District school sites. The District committed more than $67.5 million to improve the accessibility for students with physical and sensory disabilities and ended up spending far more than this amount. In addition, LAUSD spent an additional $20 million on a “rapid renovation” program to remove barriers and improve accessibility at local schools.
Although perhaps not as visible, the lawsuit also prompted the District to build an efficient data system to track the services, performance, and educational experiences of all students. The result is one comprehensive data system that will facilitate the District’s compliance with its ongoing obligations to all students, and ensure transparency and accountability to parents and advocates in the future.
The following are some key metrics under the Modified Consent Decree’s data-driven approach:
- In 2003-04, 12.73% of special education students received a suspension (9,671 students); in 2017-18, 1.31% received a suspension (971 students).
- In 2004-05, 60.2% of special education students received a diploma and 10.7% received a certificate of completion; in 2017-18, 73.6% of special education students received a diploma and 20.0% received a certificate of completion.
- In 2003-04, 7,947 IEPs were translated and only 8% were translated within 30 days and 41% taking more than 60 days. In 2017-18, 44,818 were translated and 99.99% were completed within 30 days.
- In 2003-04, 70.6% of special education teachers were appropriately credentialed; in 2017-18, the number was 85.81%.
- In 2003-04, only 41.1% of children who were characterized as emotionally-disturbed had a behavior support plan. In 2017-18, 100% of such children had such a plan.
- In 2004-05, only 2.7% of African-American children who were identified as emotionally disturbed met the legal criteria for such identification; in 2017-18, 92.5% met the legal criteria.
- In 2003-04, 36% of parent complaint calls were responded to within 5 working days; in 2017-18, 75% were responded to within 5 days.
- In 2003-04, 92.11% of eligible students had an individual transition plan; in 2017-18, 100% of students had such a plan.