MANHATTAN (CN) - A quarter-century after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, New York City schools still fall woefully short of federal standards to create fully accessible institutions for their students, prosecutors say.
In a 14-page letter, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara warned the New York City Department of Education that it has 30 days to come up with a plan to overhaul the vast majority of its schools.
"Based on the city's own statistics and characterizations of its schools, 83 percent of public elementary schools are not 'fully accessible' to people with disabilities and six of the city's school districts, serving over 50,000 elementary school students, do not have a single school that is 'fully accessible' to people with disabilities," he wrote on Monday.
The findings follow a two-year probe by Bharara's office at the Southern District of New York investigating the many hazards for children with mobility issues, including entrances, playgrounds, science laboratories, libraries, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and restrooms.
While the ADA mandates full accessibility, the city labeled many schools "functionally accessible" to describe those that provide some level of access below what the federal government requires.
"However, even crediting the city's categorizations and including those schools that have been designated as 'fully accessible' and 'functionally accessible,' the percentage of accessible elementary schools in New York City is inadequate to provide program accessibility," the letter states.
In the South Bronx, District 8 schools had only one "functionally accessible" school accommodating 13,000 elementary students, and the city reclassified one "non-accessible" school to functional in response to the federal probe, prosecutors say.
The problem forces many disabled students to travel long distances for an education, while one family "went to extreme measures" to keep their child enrolled in a local school, according to the letter.
"A parent of this elementary school child was forced to travel to the school multiple times a day, every school day, in order to carry her child up and down stairs to her classroom, to the cafeteria, and to other areas of the school in which classes and programs were held," the letter states.
Although the city's education department has touted setting aside $100 million for accessibility projects under the Capital Plan, prosecutors call this five-year plan "woefully insufficient."
"The 2015-2019 Capital Plan includes hundreds of planned physical renovations to schools in addition to the eleven accessibility projects," the letter states. "It is not clear from the Capital Plan, however, whether any of these additional planned physical renovations - which include 'upgrades' to cafeterias, auditoriums, and toilets - will be undertaken in such a way as to increase the accessibility of those areas of the schools as well as the path of travel to those altered areas."
New York City Department of Education spokesman Harry Hartfield vowed to improve access.
"Our goal to ensure that all our students have access to a high-quality education; and a student's disability should never get in the way of their access to a great school," he said in an email. "We are reviewing the United States Attorney's letter and remain committed to increasing the accessibility of our school buildings."
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