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Class-Action Ruling Gives Philadelphia Parents of Autistic Kids a Say in School Placement

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Philadelphia schoolchildren with autism got a big win this week in federal court.

Two years ago, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia filed a class-action lawsuit against the School District of Philadelphia on behalf of the 1,600  children with autism in grades K through 8.   The lawsuit demanded a change to the district's "upper leveling" process, in which the school district moves students with autism in grades K through 8 from school to school based on grade level.

Public Interest Law Center attorney Sonja Kerr says the process excluded both parents and teachers from decisionmaking, and gave little notice to families.

"One parent got a strip of paper saying, 'You're going to be moved to another school,' " says Kerr. "People call this, in jest, the 'autism shuffle' because kids just go all over."

She says the problem occurs because students with autism in grades K through 8 are grouped based on grade level into three sections for autism support services, i.e., K-2, 3-5, and 6-8.   Because not all schools offer services for all grade levels, Kerr says, the school district moves the students from school to school with no input from families.

"We had things like parents being told, 'Your child should be moved here for kindergarten,' and then we learn in second grade that there was a school a block and a half from their home that they could have gone to," says Kerr.

A federal judge ruled on Tuesday that the current process violates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA").

"The law requires that parents have a meaningful opportunity to participate in decisions about their child's education when they have a child with disabilities," says Kerr.

She says the court ruling is a huge win for families of children with autism, since a characteristic of the disorder is having difficultly with change.   She says the ruling means students may still be moved based on availability of autism support services, but now parents and teachers will get detailed notice and can provide input.

The Philadelphia School District did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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