Suit charges Springfield, MA school warehouses students with mental health needs

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SPRINGFIELD – Students with mental health needs are being warehoused in a segregated Springfield school without educational opportunities or therapeutic supports, according to a class action lawsuit filed Friday in US District Court.

The lawsuit charges the Springfield school system, Superintendent Donald J. Warwick and Mayor Domenic Sarno are violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by placing hundreds of children with mental health needs in the so-called Public Day School where the focus is on behavior control using drastic methods including dangerous physical restraints, forced isolation in padded rooms, and repeated arrests and suspensions for minor offenses.

“The Public Day School is exclusively for students with mental health needs, and the children segregated there do not need to be there,” said Robert Fleischner from the Center for Public Representation, which brought the suit along with the Judge David H. Bazelon Center for Mental Health and Bingham McCutchen.

Added Ira Burnim, Bazelon legal director, “These students can be educated successfully in Springfield’s neighborhood schools with reasonable modification of school programs and appropriate school-based behavioral services.”  Such services include a school-based intervention plan that relies on positive support, training for teachers, staff and parents, and coordination with non-school providers.

Notably, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education cited the Springfield school system in April for being in violation of federal and state law as a result removing students with disabilities from regular classrooms without appropriate justification, failing to provide needed behavior services to children, and denying children in the Public Day School the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular and vocational programs.

In 2013-14, there were 233 students at the Public Day School, where the drop-out rate exceeds 41%, in contrast to the overall 6.5% rate in Springfield schools.  

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of a 15-year-old student who for the last four years has been consigned to the Public Day School, and the Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL), a statewide, grassroots family organization that advocates for improved access to services for children with mental health needs and their families.  During the past year, more than 150 Springfield families have sought help from or joined PPAL’s network, which extends to more than 7,000 families statewide.

“These children face real obstacles, but they can also have amazing futures with the right educational supports and opportunities,” said Lisa Lambert, PPAL executive director. “We hope this lawsuit will make sure they get that chance.”

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