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Court decision ends ‘autism shuffle’ in Philly schools

Students with autism will no longer be transferred from one school to another without parental input

Philadelphia students with autism will no longer be transferred from one school to another without parental input, a June settlement states.

Because not all of the School District of Philadelphia’s 214 schools have autism services for all grades, students were sometimes transferred to different buildings depending on the services needed, says Sonja Kerr, director of disability rights for the Public Interest Law Center.

Parents and teachers were sometimes not told about the transfers until as late as the first day of school, Kerr says. It’s a practice advocates labelled the “autism shuffle,” she adds.

The Public Interest Law Center filed the class-action lawsuit PV vs. the School District of Philadelphia in 2011 on behalf of four students and their parents.

“We thought, ‘This can’t be right,’ because a defining characteristic of autism is difficulty with change and transitions,” Kerr says. “Districts can decide that a child would be more appropriately served at another school, but not to involve parents or special ed staff seemed wrong.”

The June settlement approved by U.S. District Court Judge Legrome D. Davis requires the district to publish a regularly updated list of all schools that have autism services to show parents the options before enrolling their child. This information had not previously been available to the public.

The district must send a letter in January informing parents that their child will be transferred in September. Another letter sent in June will include the name of the student’s new school. The letters will tell parents that they can discuss the proposed transfer at a meeting with the student’s current IEP team, and that they have the right to appeal.

The settlement will impact between 1,800 and 3,000 K8 students who may be transferred in the next school year. The district’s press office did not return calls for comment.

“This is a good step toward helping parents and district staff realize that you’ve got to take some extra time thinking and planning for kids with autism, particularly in a district like Philadelphia that is constantly moving and closing buildings,” Kerr says.