Breaking News: Federal Class Action Dyslexia Lawsuit Settlement Reached Against a CA School District!

On July 8, 2021, a proposed settlement was agreed to in a class action case filed on May 2, 2017, by four current and former Berkeley Unified School District (“BUSD”) students with reading disorders, including dyslexia (Student A. et al. v. Berkeley Unified School District  was filed in the federal court for the Northern District of California, Case No. 3:17-cv-02510). The Court has given preliminary approval of the settlement and has scheduled a hearing for November 4, 2021 at 2:00 p.m.

The students who brought the case claim that BUSD discriminates against and fails to provide students with reading disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”), to which they are entitled to under federal and state law. 

As a result of this settlement, BUSD will work collaboratively with nationally recognized outside consultants to develop and implement a Literacy Improvement Plan (“Plan”) to improve reading and language arts achievement for all students, and especially those with or at risk for reading disabilities. 

Settlement to Accomplish Four Plan Goals:

  • Goal 1: Develop Programs to Improve General Education Reading and Language Arts achievement for all Students, especially those Students with or at risk for Reading Disabilities, including Dyslexia.
  • Goal 2: Increase the Systematicity and Intensity of Tier 2 and 3 Reading and Language Arts Intervention of the MTSS Framework to Reduce the Achievement Gap for Students at risk for Reading Disabilities.
  • Goal 3: Ensure Fidelity of Literacy Improvement Program Implementation through District Monitoring of Literacy Improvement Program and Staff Engagement. 
  • Goal 4: Special Education Programs: Increase Reading Achievement by Improving the Quality of IEP Goals and Section 504 Plan Development, Progress Monitoring, and use of appropriately intensive, Research-based Interventions. 

Settlement Highlights Include:

  • BUSD will identify students at risk for reading disabilities through universal screening and universal screening will inform early intervention. BUSD will also conduct Benchmark Assessments in the fall, winter, and spring to ensure reading growth for all students. BUSD to implement a “reading data system” and “reading testing system” for use in Grades K-8 to measure students’ reading fluency, and their progress toward “benchmarks” or academic goals including parental notification. Testing will include, but not be limited to, letter sound correspondence, diagnostic surveys of print knowledge, phoneme awareness, phonics, word reading, spelling, written expression, and reading fluency.
  • For its Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) –

°BUSD has selected FastTrack as a supplement to its core language arts program (Tier 1). According to the scope and sequence for the adopted program, BUSD will provide appropriately intensive research-based phonics instruction at a frequency   estimated to be at least 115 minutes per five-day week, including time spent conducting assessments. Its core reading program will be supplemented to be of appropriate intensity in terms of academic English and explicit phonics and phoneme awareness instruction. Language for Learning, Language for Thinking, Wilson Fundations, Systematic Instruction in Phonological Awareness and Phonics – SIPPS and FastTrack are programs named as examples.

°Tier 2 and Tier 3 reading interventions must align with the International Dyslexia Association’s Knowledge and Practice Standards for Teachers of Reading. BUSD has selected Wilson Reading Systems and, for students with suspected reading disabilities,  will prohibit the use of Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention or Reading Recovery except in “exceptional circumstances”.

  • Special Education Programs – BUSD will transition from using the severe discrepancy model and adopt the Pattern of Strengths and Weaknesses Model Weaknesses for specific learning disability eligibility. BUSD will increase use of the MTSS as part of the comprehensive evaluation to identify students with specific learning disabilities, including dyslexia. 
  • The settlement includes regular outside monitoring, hiring of nationally-recognized outside consultants, and professional development for staff and administrators.

Thank you to the team of plaintiff’s attorneys (Jacobson Education Law, Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund, Goodwin Procter LLP, and King & Spalding LLP) who tirelessly worked on an either pro bono basis or at a mere fraction of their legal fees to represent these vulnerable families. 

You Asked! Question 18

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Q18:  The school says my dyslexic student doesn’t qualify for special education.  My dyslexic student is spending 3x longer to complete homework and study for tests and is earning passing grades. Can my student still qualify for a Section 504 plan and receive services?

A:  Possibly.  If a student is ineligible for special education and related services under the IDEA, a student may be eligible for “regular or special education and related aids and services” under a federal anti-discrimination law known as Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504).[1]  Section 504 is designed to reasonably accommodate a student’s disability so that her individual educational needs are met as adequately as the needs of nondisabled students.  Section 504 applies to all public schools that receive federal financial assistance.[2]

To be eligible under Section 504, a student must: (1) have a “physical or mental impairment” which substantially limits one or more major life activities (such as learning, reading or writing); (2) have a record of such an impairment; or (3) be regarded as having such an impairment.[3]  It is important to remember that mitigating measures such as medication and the use of assistive technology cannot be used as a reason to deny a student’s eligibility under Section 504.[4]  For this reason, it is important for parents to alert the team in writing to these types of concerns as part of the evaluation process.

The regulations to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), another federal law that prohibits discrimination against and ensures equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities, adopts Section 504’s definition of “disability”.  Furthermore, recent amendments to ADA regulations define a “physical or mental impairment” to include “dyslexia and other specific learning disabilities.”[5]

A student under a Section 504 plan is entitled to a “Free Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE). Appropriate education includes the provision of regular or special education services and related aids and services that are designed to meet the individual education needs of the student as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met.[6]  The requirements regarding the provisions of a FAPE, specifically described in Section 504 regulations, are incorporated in the general non-discrimination provisions of the applicable ADA regulation.[7]

Thus, “appropriate education” may include “education in regular classes, education in regular classes with the use of related aids and services, or special education and related services in separate classrooms for all or portions of the school day.”[8]  Under Section 504, special education may include “specially designed instruction in classrooms, at home, or in private and public institutions, and may be accompanied by related services, such as speech therapy, occupational and physical therapy [etc. that are] … necessary to the child’s education.”[9]  Section 504 also requires that “appropriate education” must be free and provided at no cost to parents.[10]

Further, “[i]f a student with a disability … is eligible for FAPE under Section 504 but is not receiving FAPE services under the IDEA, that student is entitled to the provision of any services the placement team decides are appropriate to meet their individual educational needs, regardless of cost or administrative burden”, especially if those services had been provided to IDEA-eligible students previously.[11]  “These services can be as varied and as comprehensive as necessary to meet a student’s need.”[12]

(Source:  Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund –  www.dredf.org)

[1] 29 U.S.C. § 794; 34 C.F.R. Pt. 104.

[2] 34 C.F.R. § 104.1; 29 U.S.C. § 794 (b)(2)(B)

[3] See 34 C.F.R. § 104.3(j) for further definition.  See also Community Alliance for Special Education and Disability Rights of California, Special Education Rights & Responsibilities (2011), available at: http://www.disabilityrightsca.org/pubs/PublicationsSERREnglish.htm.

[4] United States Dep’t of Educ., Office for Civil Rights, Free Appropriate Public Education for Students with Disabilities:  Requirements Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (2010), available at: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/504faq.html.

[5] 28 C.F.R. § 36.105(b)(2).

[6] 34 C.F.R. § 104.33(b).

[7] 28 C.F.R. § 35.103(a).

[8] See Footnote 4.

[9] See Footnote 4.

[10] 34 C.F.R. § 104.33(c).

[11] United States Dep’t of Educ., Office for Civil Rights, Dear Colleague Letter (July 26, 2016), p. 27, available at: https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/letters/colleague-201607-504-adhd.pdf.

[12] See Footnote 11.

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