EUGENE — An oral argument took place Wednesday for a class action lawsuit that could affect the educational future of children with disabilities facing shortened school days, following a state-issued motion to dismiss the case this April.
District Judge Ann Aiken will issue an opinion out of Eugene District Court within 60 days.
Seth Galanter of the National Center for Youth Law — one of the law groups that filed the case — said the judge showed little sign of dismissing it. Either way, the plaintiffs are hoping to hear an opinion from the court before the start of the school year.
The lawsuit, filed in January, seeks to ensure the state provides more oversight for special education programs in Oregon, and helps provide support for students to experience full school days.
Students like Aidin Schell, 9, attended three schools in Pendleton School District for a few years.
His mother, Jennifer, who spoke with the East Oregonian in January, said he had been receiving shortened school days against her wishes. She said she’d requested switching classrooms, and one-on-one support, but that the district told her they lacked the resources to support her son attending school for full days.
He eventually attended a program at Lifeways.
Schell said she was told that after he completed the program, he could receive full days at school. She said this didn’t happen.
Today, Aidin is home-schooled. He is working through the fourth grade.
“He loves working independently, he doesn’t have distractions,” Schell said. “But on the social engagement side of things, he is at a disadvantage.”
Schell said her son is involved in Special Olympics, and that they are part of a parent support group but that getting that key socialization in is still difficult.
“A child with autism already feels isolated and different,” Schell said.
Schell and Disability Rights Oregon filed an Oregon Department of Education administrative complaint against the district in March, but it wasn’t very successful.
Schell said she knows of several other families in the Pendleton area with similar struggles.
“I have the utmost confidence in our staff and administrative team,” said Pendleton School District Superintendent Chris Fritsch. “I believe we’re following the state and federal laws.”
Julie Smith, Director of Special Programs at Pendleton School District, stated that PSD follows the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act and Oregon SB 263 regarding abbreviated school days.
SB 263, passed in 2017, limits school districts from imposing shortened school days on students who could manage full school days with the proper support.
Fritsch said the district could not comment on the class action lawsuit, because it is pending litigation.
Across the state
The lawsuit, which Schell was not a part of, emphasizes that shortened school days are a problem in smaller school districts. In these areas, districts might be strapped to find people with the necessary behavioral expertise to support some children through full school days.
“It particularly impacts small and rural school districts, many of which are located in Northeastern Oregon,” said Joel Greenberg of DRO. “We’ve had complaints from that part of the state.”
But the class action lawsuit stretches beyond this corner of Oregon.
“The reason we’re filing a class action suit is because we believe there are at least hundreds of students across the state who are affected by shortened school days,” said Greenberg. “[But] the state doesn’t collect any data.”
Under SB 263, districts do record students with shortened school days, but don’t have to report the information to the state.
The lawsuit lists four boys as plaintiffs, by initials rather than full names, who attend or have attended public schools in Oregon and qualify for special education through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. They represent the much larger class, according to the complaint.
FACT Oregon, an organization that advocates for families who experience disability, also operates a help line for Oregon parents. The organization reported that they received 280 calls about shortened school days between September 2016 and December 2018.
In the motion to dismiss, the state, comprised of the ODE, ODE Director Colt Gill and Gov. Kate Brown — who also serves as the Superintendent for Public Instruction in Oregon — argues it is not their responsibility to prevent schools from violating the public statutes which prevent inappropriate use of shortened school days, and that the plaintiffs’ arguments are not supported by existing legal precedent.
The motion also argues that because the four plaintiffs are not currently receiving unlawful shortened school days, the complaint lacks standing.
At the time the case was filed, one child was actively receiving shortened school days.
Another child, 7 years old, hadn’t experienced a full school day till this past school year. His mother frequently received calls from the school to pick him up early from his two-hour school day.
Currently, the ODE does have a complaint process where parents who feel their children are being placed in unlawful abbreviated school day programs can report, which, according to the motion to dismiss, has “achieved a resolution” for three of the plaintiffs and over 30 students in general.
Communications Director for General Attorney Ellen Rosenblum, Kristina Edmunson, said the Oregon Department of Justice typically does not comment on pending litigation.During the oral argument Wednesday, Judge Aiken recommended the state consider some sort of mediated settlement, to spare time and costs for litigation.“We were really pleased that the court was taking seriously the plight of the kids of Oregon who aren’t getting full school days,” Galanter said. “We’re certainly very optimistic.”