Portland Public Schools: We’re Not Responsible For Educating Disabled Students

Fifty-three disabled students were told that the public school district in Portland, Ore., is no longer responsible for their education.
By @katierucke |
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    The public Martin Luther King Jr. School in Portland, Ore. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

    The public Martin Luther King Jr. School in Portland, Ore. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

    Fifty-three disabled students — each requiring 24-hour care, intensive nursing services, and feeding tubes — were told last month that the public school district in Portland, Ore., is no longer responsible for their education.

    According to The Oregonian, the announcement came as a shock to parents, special education directors and administrators at Providence Child Center, a therapeutic facility and home for children with disabilities. They were informed of the decision by a letter stating that an analysis of state law revealed the school district was not liable to provide an education to the students.

    For the past 10 years, Portland Public Schools has helped educate students who live at the Center for Medically Fragile Children at the Providence Child Center. Since the center is within the Portland Public School boundaries, the district assumed responsibility for the students’ education and, since 2004, provided transportation for many of the students living at the center to one of its schools.

    Mary Pearson, the special education director for Portland Public Schools, said that the school’s reversal was motivated partly by cost. The district spends around $1.5 million to educate the students living at the center, according to The Oregonian.

    Another factor in the school’s decision was that the district did not want to be held liable for making decisions for students who are not district residents, The Oregonian reported.

    Due to the sequester, federal funding for education was cut by about 5.1 percent, even though education is only about 2 percent of the federal budget. According to the National Education Association, about 7.4 million students and 49,365 school personnel will be affected by the lack of funding for education.

    Nichole Karn’s daughter Joslyn, 8, is one of the students who is affected by the announcement. Requiring around-the-clock care, Karn told The Oregonian she is not sure where school officials expect Joslyn to get an education.

    The parents of nearly 80 percent of the students from Providence Child Center live outside the school district’s boundaries, according to The Oregonian.

    The letter to parents reportedly included language encouraging parents to contact the school district they live in, but did not confirm that any district or school in particular would be able to help their children.

    “It’s not Portland Public’s responsibility to define who should provide that support,” Ed Krankowski, the district’s assistant director of special education, told The Oregonian. “We just know that we’re not the ones legally responsible for that support.”

    Karn said she would like to keep her daughter in the school system and wants to apply for an inter-district transfer, but says the district would not be obligated to accept Joslyn if they would not be able to accommodate her.

    Legally, schools must provide services to special education students, but what those services are and the quality of that assistance is not clearly written in the law. According to The Atlantic, school districts across the U.S. have already struggled to educate special-needs children, since the federal government has not funded special education programs as promised under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

    Pearson told The Oregonian the school district reviewed its policy after the district was sent a bill for the education of a child who is living in an out-of-state medical facility but has a guardian in Portland.

    School officials say they offered to hold classes at the center, but parents declined, saying that socializing with other students is just as important to their children as the actual learning.

    Parents are now scrambling to find a place for their children to attend classes in the fall, but since school is out for summer, many are finding it very difficult.

    “I’ve contacted my school district and at least got the ball rolling,” said Carrie Petz, whose 12-year-old son has cerebral palsy and seizures, in an interview with The Oregonian. “But then summer comes, and the school year is going to start, and he’s not going to have a place to go.”

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