It’s “IEP season” for many special education students and families, a time of year when families meet with Berkeley Unified School District representatives to create Individualized Education Plans for the coming school year. A recent article in Berkeleyside noted that, though there has been a decrease in student enrollment, there has been an increase in students requiring IEPs in Berkeley. This upswing should not be surprising: the entire world just experienced a mass disabling event in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left millions dead and potentially millions more with life-long physical and mental disabilities, including children.
But rather than stepping up to the challenge, the school district continues to fall behind, leaving students behind as well. A recently settled class-action lawsuit in 2021 alleged a large-scale violation of special education law; now, the school district stands accused of breaching that settlement. The district’s requirements under the law should not surprise administrators. BUSD, like all school districts nationwide, has a clear legal obligation spelled out in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), which governs IEPs, to provide services to special education students.
Though the lawsuit and settlement are new, IDEA has existed since 1975. The school district has had nearly 50 years to figure out how to provide resources to their special education students. Their inability to comply with a settlement based on a law this old, in the cradle of the disability rights movement, is quite frankly sad.
In response to this increase in IEPs and the school district’s supposed financial constraints, Special Education Director Shawn Masanger stated that the school district was “working really hard to pull our students back from non-public schools.” These non-public schools support students with needs or disabilities that the district cannot accommodate through their typical programming or services. This statement about pulling students out of their schools was no doubt alarming to parents, who have worked with educators and specialists to find the appropriate educational setting for their children when the school district was unable to provide it. It will, however, delight their lawyers, in light of a recent unanimous Supreme Court ruling that opens school districts up to far greater monetary damages than in the past. That the head of special education was willing to openly plan more potential violations of IDEA is troubling.
That same Berkeleyside article noted that this year’s legal settlements “only” amount to approximately $650,000. If this seems cheap, let’s break down what that half million plus could have paid for. Though salaries vary by field, experience, and years in service, in 2021, a BUSD occupational therapist could cost the district as much as $160,000. A BUSD school psychologist could make $100,000. And a BUSD speech-language pathologist might be $130,000. That is three special education professionals supporting multiple students each week, and we still have $260,000 to go for classroom assistants and materials. Not noted in the article was how much Berkeley paid lawyers to manage the lawsuits and how many specialists that would have paid for. The school district’s actions indicate that settling lawsuits is better than investing in students and staff. The fact that they appear happy that the payouts have gone down, but notably are not gone altogether, is a sad testament to their efforts.
Students, parents, families and taxpayers deserve an administration that follows the law and holds true to their legal obligations and agreements. The promise of the disability rights movement, born here in Berkeley, is a free and appropriate public education for all. Berkeley Unified School District cannot shirk its responsibilities to its students, or the law.
Minda Berbeco is a parent of a special education student in the Berkeley Unified School District.