Education is the cornerstone of democracy and the ladder of opportunity. To prepare children for a meaningful role in society, education must provide them with the ability to compete effectively in the economy and to contribute and participate as citizens and members of their communities. To ensure all children have the opportunity to succeed in life, SLC advocates to ensure high quality education is available to all children on equal terms.
From the beginning, obtaining access to appropriate educational services for children with disabilities has been a hallmark of SLC’s advocacy. We have represented thousands of children in a variety of forums from administrative proceedings to state and federal courts. Some cases have been precedent setting and others have achieved broad relief. Whether on behalf of an individual or a group, SLC has secured needed services and educational placements to allow children to maximize their potential.
Through our work, special education programs have been established in prisons and juvenile justice programs and we have reformed systems and policies. Transgender children and those who are HIV positive have gained access to education after being discriminated against by schools. And to ensure that low-income children have access to a statewide system of special education advocates, SLC provides training and statewide support to the civil legal aid system with support from The Florida Bar Foundation.
Florida’s education system is failing, where more than a million children are not reading on grade level, thousands attend persistently low-performing schools, and the quality of their education is dependent on their race, ethnicity, geography or socioeconomic status.
A considerable number of children come to school not ready to learn, without having the background that children from wealthier households have. There is a clear disparity in the performance of economically disadvantaged students versus those who are not economically disadvantaged. A majority of students living in poverty do not pass statewide assessments in math or reading. To provide educational opportunity to all children as the Florida Constitution requires, school districts need to respond to children’s needs at whatever level they are to make that educational opportunity meaningful.
In 1998, the citizens of this State overwhelmingly voted to impose the highest duty on the State to provide a quality education system. SLC filed suit in 2009 (Citizens for Strong Schools v. State Board of Education) to hold government accountable to the people for its failures to meet its constitutional obligation. A high quality education system is not complacent with mediocrity, nor does it accept persistently failing schools and glaring achievement gaps as foregone conclusions.
After a four-week trial in March 2016, the trial court ruled in favor of the State and concluded that the constitutional provision was not enforceable in court. Although disappointed by the court’s ruling, SLC continues to persevere and has appealed the decision. We will not give up the fight until the promise in our constitution is fulfilled for all Florida’s children.
Below are a few selected cases. We have not listed all of the individual students we have represented.
J.R. v. Palm Beach County Sch. Bd. (S.D. Fla. 2006). J.R. is a special education student with an emotional disability. During an incident in which he was misbehaving, the school called the resource officer to restrain him. After he was placed in handcuffs in a seclusion room and while he was on the floor, the resource officer pepper sprayed him. We filed a § 1983 excessive force police misconduct case seeking an injunction to improve the pepper spray policy in this school district, which allows too much discretion in school resource officers. A mediated settlement provided for damages for the student, a change to the pepper spray policy, and training for school staff on the policy and in handling students with emotional and mental health problems. Co-counsel: Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County.
W.R. v. Sch. Bd. of Osceola Cnty., 726 So. 2d 801 (Fla. 5th DCA 1999). After successful special education advocacy on behalf of a child with disabilities, SLC obtained legal precedent, in a case of first impression, that Florida state courts have legal authority to award attorneys’ fees under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. This ruling expanded the availability of lawyers for these types of cases due to the availability of attorneys’ fees, ensuring that more children with disabilities will have access to courts.
Coalition for Advocacy v. Chiles, 680 So. 2d 400 (Fla. 1996). Represented intervenors of 38 low income and minority school children and four prominent civil rights groups - NAACP, Spanish American League Against Discrimination, League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Haitian Refugee Center. Suit was brought by 43 school boards against the Legislature and state education agencies. The central claim was that children have the fundamental right to be "adequately provided with a uniform education" under the state constitution's education clause. As intervenors, we focused on the need for the State to meet the needs of low income children, who are primarily children of color. We sought trained and experienced teachers, facilities and materials, staff student ratios, challenging and vigorous curriculum and access to early childhood programs at their high poverty schools, at least at the level of schools that are not high poverty. Case decided by Florida Supreme Court in favor of State on separation of powers grounds, but dissents and concurrence pointed the way to framing justiciable legal action.
Martinez v. Sch. Bd. of Hillsborough Cnty., 861 F.2d 1502 (11th Cir. 1988). When a school board isolated an HIV positive, developmentally disabled student from the general population at school, SLC submitted an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities that discussed an issue of first impression involving the interrelationship of Rehabilitation Act and Education of Handicapped Act claims. The court’s decision set out the appropriate framework for evaluating these types of discrimination claims for future courts and reversed the lower court’s decision allowing the child to be segregated in a separate classroom. The child subsequently won the right to attend school along with the general population.
Snow v. Volusia County Sch. Bd. (M.D. Fla.), reported in 9 ABA Mental & Physical Disab. L. Rptr. 205 (1985). Class action to challenge a pattern and practice of discrimination against students in a school for students with disabilities. Preliminary injunction closed school that the State had condemned as unsafe several years earlier. In addition, special educational programming requirements were ordered by the court at the new site. This case prompted a statewide examination of the cost effectiveness of segregated facilities for students with disabilities.
Cook v. Sch. Bd. of Sarasota Cnty. (Fla. 1st DCA 1982). SLC obtained the first state appellate order that addressed the federal Education of the Handicapped Act (now IDEA), affirming administrative precedent regarding when a school board is obligated to provide a residential placement for seriously emotionally disturbed youth.