Federal Complaint Filed Against Success Academy Charter Schools for Violating Rights of Children with Disabilities

A federal complaint was filed today against Success Academy Charter Schools for violating the rights of children with disabilities. Public Advocate Letitia James, NYC Council Education Committee Chairperson Daniel Dromm, The Legal Aid Society, Legal Services NYC, Partnership for Children’s Rights, MFY Legal Services, and New York Legal Assistance Group along with school parents and students filed the federal civil rights complaint for systemic practices violating the rights of children with disabilities. The complaint alleges that Success Academy schools have consistently failed to provide reasonable accommodations to children with disabilities and have coerced these students to leave Success Academy when they require or may require services related to a disability.

The complaint also alleges that Success Academy has failed to comply with the disciplinary due process rights of students with disabilities and have failed to provide parents with meaningful notice regarding their rights and access to supportive accommodations. It cites specific violations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

"Every student in this City deserves an equitable, quality education," said Public Advocate Letitia James. "That means that every school—including Success Academy—has a responsibility to teach and protect each and every child that walks through its doors, including those children with disabilities. We will not stand for the mistreatment and discrimination against our most vulnerable children and their families, and will hold any institution responsible for their actions so that all students can have the education they deserve."

“Success Academy has pulled the wool over the public’s eyes for far too long and in doing so violated children’s educational rights,” said NYC Council Education Committee Chairperson Daniel Dromm. “It’s time they be held accountable for their enrollment, discipline and special education policies like every public school is. The stories of discrimination against students with disabilities warrant this complaint and I thank Public Advocate Letitia James for filing it. The United States Department of Education needs to correct these terrible injustices immediately.”

“Pushing out vulnerable students is not how we define success,” said Seymour W. James, Attorney-in-Chief of The Legal Aid Society. “The law is clear: publicly funded schools, including charter schools, cannot discriminate on the basis of disability, and must provide federally mandated special education services and due process protections. The parents who have come forward in this complaint have seen their children suspended, left back year after year, and pushed out of the Success Academy system. It's time for the federal government to investigate this gross discrimination.”

“Today, a handful of courageous parents and their children have come forward to demand an end to Success Academy’s systemic discriminatory practices against students with disabilities and students presumed to have disabilities,” said Raun Rasmussen, Executive Director of Legal Services NYC. “The complaint highlights the inappropriate and illegal practices that Success Academy utilizes to achieve so-called ‘success’ and the costs and sacrifices that the students experience in the process. Success Academy operates schools in some of the most distressed neighborhoods of this city and receives considerable public funding but fails to serve students with disabilities in accordance with the law. These children deserve better.”

“I have fought hard to get my children into Success Academy and I am fighting hard to keep them there,” said the parent of a ten-year-old girl involved in the complaint. “We were so hopeful when she was placed at Success but since the suspensions started and after they put her on a half-day schedule for four months, I have felt the school has been discriminating against my daughter. Eventually they told me that she should be in a smaller class, but they didn’t have any at that school. They didn’t tell me that they had them at other Success schools. They even told me I shouldn’t have found a lawyer to represent her. Now my daughter is repeating second grade. As a parent, it’s terrible to see your child hurting because she keeps getting left behind, because she is constantly being suspended for something she can’t control, because she has to leave her friends in the middle of the school day. She has as much right to an education as any child without a disability, but we feel like Success Academy would rather we just left than have to provide accommodations for her needs.”

“Our clients who have disabilities have repeatedly faced barriers to integration and achievement at Success Academy,” said Jeanette Zelhof, Executive Director of MFY Legal Services, Inc. “We hope that the Office of Civil Rights will remedy this growing injustice.”

Success Academy is New York City’s largest charter school network, operating thirty-six schools with a total enrollment of approximately 11,000 students. Success Academy receives federal and state funding to provide educational services to the students enrolled in its schools. In addition to direct funding from the federal and state governments, the network receives space for all of its schools free of charge from New York City.

The complaint cites mounting evidence highlighting the inappropriate, illegal, and discriminatory practices the organization utilizes to achieve “success” and the costs, sacrifices, and shortcuts that the students experience in the process. Parents of children attending Success Academy schools have expressed concerns about Success Academy’s disciplinary policies, its lack of accommodations for children with actual or perceived disabilities, and its practice of pushing students out.

The complaint was filed before the United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights. The parents, advocates, Public Advocate James and Council Member Dromm are demanding that Success Academy provide reasonable accommodations on a child’s Section 504 Plan or a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP). They are also demanding that Success Academy properly account for a child’s disability when deciding how to discipline a student and refrain from retaliating against parents or their children if such parents stand up for their child’s educational rights.

The New York Times
Filing Alleges Bias at Success Academy Network Against Students With Disabilities
By Kate Taylor
JAN. 20, 2016 

Parents of 13 current and former students of Success Academy filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights with the federal Education Department on Wednesday, accusing the charter school network of discriminating against students with disabilities by denying them accommodations and in some cases pushing them out.

Success Academy is a high-achieving network of 34 charter schools in New York City known for its students’ high test scores and its strict disciplinary policies. Its critics have long asserted that Success pushes out underperforming or difficult students, which the network denies.

The complaint described how students with disabilities were repeatedly suspended or made to repeat grades and how administrators in several cases urged parents to remove their students from the school. The complaint asserted that Success repeatedly violated federal law by not offering students with disabilities alternative instruction when they were suspended, and not holding hearings to determine if the behavior leading to the suspensions was caused by their disabilities and whether additional services were needed.

The parents were joined in the complaint by the city’s public advocate, Letitia James; Councilman Daniel Dromm; the Legal Aid Society; and several other organizations that provide free legal services.

The complaint also cited cases in which the network called emergency medical services to transport unruly students to the hospital.

On Wednesday, Success Academy’s founder, Eva S. Moskowitz, said in a statement: “We provide 11,000 students, including over 1,400 special needs students, with an excellent education and have thousands more students on our waiting lists. We are disappointed that these 13 families do not feel the needs of their children were met.”

The Daily News reported on the complaint on Wednesday afternoon.

Such accusations against Success are not entirely new. In December 2014, the principal of a Success Academy school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, drew up a list of 16 students whom he wanted to leave under the heading “Got to Go.” Nine of the students eventually left the school. Ms. Moskowitz has called that episode an anomaly.