PHILADELPHIA (CN) – A suburban Philadelphia school district is transferring all of its autistic elementary students to a single school, with little preparation for students or parents, turning them into a “zoo exhibit” for other students at the school, parents claim in a federal class action.
Parents Toni and Steven Streeter sued the Chichester School District, its superintendent Barbara DiMarino, supervisor of special education Christine Murrin, and director of pupil services Siobhan Levy.
Chichester School District is in Bucks County, south of Philadelphia.
The Streeters claim the school district told parents on May 20 that all autistic students would be moved from Linwood Elementary to Boothwyn Elementary for the school year that begins in September. The district’s program for autistic children is to be consolidated in the one school.
The Streeters say that when they asked about the reasons for the relocation, they were variously told: “The principal at Linwood Elementary is overwhelmed and we want to lighten her load”; “Chichester School District has conducted an extensive study and we find that this is the best location for the children”; and “We want children at Boothwyn to see what it is like to interact with autistic children.”
The latter reason, according to the lawsuit, treats their child “and others similarly situated as a zoo exhibit.”
The parents claim it also violates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by forgoing parental involvement and by not following the Individual Education Plan – a set of accommodations established for each disabled student, as mandated by IDEA.
“The problem with autism,” the plaintiff’s attorney Leonidas Koletas told Courthouse News, “is that any break in the routine, any break in the sameness, any break in the people you come in contact with creates a confusion and withdrawal of the student. It creates agitation, it creates emotional trauma to the student. It’s not a question of moving from building A to building B. It’s about how they facilitated that move.”
Typically, when autistic children are moved from elementary school to junior high school, they are given an entire year to become familiar with the new environment through a structured program of relocation tailored to the challenges such relocation can pose for children with autism, Koletas said.
The Linwood students are given only the summer between school years to acclimate, according to the complaint.
Officials from the Chichester School District did not respond to requests for comment.
Neither Koletas nor the complaint identified the number of autistic children in the district.
The parents seek class certification, and want the kibosh put on the transfers, plus costs.
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