In a case that could affect how school districts teach students with autism, four parents have filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of their autistic children, alleging that the Philadelphia School District is illegally moving the children from school to school based solely on their disability.
At issue is the district’s Automatic Autism Transfer Policy, which mandates that students with autism move to another school at the end of third and fifth grades. Non-autistic students do not have to move.
The four plaintiff parents, whose suit was filed June 20 in federal court, claim the district is violating state and federal law by transferring students simply because they have been diagnosed on the autism spectrum.
Autism-support classes are located in various schools throughout the city, requiring most students to be transferred every three years. Most schools that have an autism-support class have a K-2, 3-5, or 6-8 class, but not all three, according to Sonja Kerr, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
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Sharon Vargas, one of the plaintiffs, said she is worried for her son, a second grader.
“They don’t really prepare the kids for a transition, and that’s really hard for autistic kids,” she said. “It’s so frustrating.”
Though the suit was filed by four parents, the policy affects at least 3,000 students district-wide, said Kerr, director of disability rights at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
“We think it’s a widespread problem,” said Kerr. “We think it’s a long-standing problem.”
Transitions are especially difficult for students with autism, and the automatic-transfer policy has been criticized by the Philadelphia Right to Education Local Task Force, a local authority charged with monitoring school districts’ compliance on special-education issues.