A classroom at Emerson Elementary in Berkeley. Photo: BUSD

Update, 6:15 p.m. BUSD issued the following statement in response to the lawsuit:

“We are disheartened to learn that our District has been named in a lawsuit alleging that the District has not met its obligation to identify students with reading disabilities, including dyslexia, as eligible for special education services.  The suit filed by Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund is based on their position that a clinical diagnosis of dyslexia requires a district to identify a student as disabled, or eligible, for special education.  We do not agree with this position, and we do not believe it is supported by state or federal law. Further, the implication is that a student must be identified as disabled in order to receive interventions and support services, and that is most certainly not the case in our District. We strive to provide an excellent education to all children and are proud of the interventions that we provide, including to those students who require assistance with reading.

“DREDF and parent advocates have every right to advocate for their position. In fact, the District has attempted to work with DREDF in various ways to address their issues, and from these discussions, we conclude that DREDF’s concerns are with the law and that their arguments should be addressed to our legislators rather than in a lawsuit targeting a public school district.

“We will address this lawsuit with integrity and respect, as we believe the group and parents they represent are well intentioned, but we do remain firm in our position that the District has acted appropriately, both legally and in terms of the excellent programs provided to our students.”

Original story: A class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday says the Berkeley Unified School District has failed to provide legally required accommodations to students who have difficulty learning to read.

Disability rights attorneys filed the lawsuit in federal court on behalf of all BUSD students with reading disorders, such as dyslexia. The suit names the district, Superintendent Donald Evans and the Berkeley School Board and its members as defendants.

“BUSD has systemically declined to timely identify, evaluate and provide appropriate interventions and accommodations to students with reading disorders, which are necessary tools required for them to process information and thereby attain the foundational unit of their education – to learn to read,” the complaint says.

The attorneys, from Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Jacobson Education Law and Goodwin, are representing four students they say did not receive the help they were legally entitled to from BUSD. In one case, they say the district determined a second-grade student with a reading disorder was ineligible for an Individualized Education Program — a plan that sets goals and determines accommodations for students with special needs — forcing the parents to seek private help and causing emotional distress. In other cases, they say the district delayed an IEP for more than a year or offered inadequate accommodations.

The lawyers say the students’ continued academic challenges were avoidable.

“We want this to be addressed early on when kids still have a chance,” said Deborah Jacobson, of Berkeley-based Jacobson Education Law. “If addressed in kindergarten, first grade or second grade, chances are really high that they can learn to read.”

The Berkeley Unified School District is working on a response to the lawsuit and will provide it soon, according to Charles Burress, district spokesman.

Jacobson said she has received dozens of calls over the past few years from parents of BUSD students with dyslexia and other literacy challenges. She said she has a good relationship with the district and has worked closely with administrators to successfully accommodate many students with a range of special needs, but “with dyslexia, the only thing I can say to them is, ‘There’s nothing here for you.’”

The remedy has to include alternative classroom instruction, Jacobson said. Currently, she said, BUSD uses a language-based literacy curriculum involving memorization and visual recognition, which is challenging for students with dyslexia.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court in Northern California, asks for a new district policy specifically recognizing the rights of students with reading disorders, a reform of the current policies that are not in compliance with state or federal law, training for BUSD staff on teaching students with reading disorders and attorney fees.

Jacobson said the lack of support for public school students with reading disorders is a statewide issue, though she has seen some local districts with stronger offerings.

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...