Two advocacy groups claim the Beaufort County School District has violated federal law by not treating some disabled students fairly.
The S.C. Appleseed Legal Justice Center and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint Tuesday with the S.C. Department of Education alleging the district has denied special-education services to disabled students -- violating the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act -- and subjected them to repeated suspensions and unnecessarily harsh discipline.
The complaint also alleges that black disabled students are suspended at a higher rate than white disabled students.
The complaint was a "surprise" to district officials, who had been working with the families involved throughout the school year, according to district spokesman Jim Foster.
The complaint stems from complaints from parents of three students at Lady's Island Middle School, a student at Robert Smalls Middle School and a student at Mossy Oaks Elementary, according to Stephen Suggs, deputy director of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center.
The agencies sent a news release announcing the complaint Tuesday morning, a move S.C. Department of Education spokesman Jay W. Ragley said was "unusual." Ragley said complaints are more commonly filed by parents, not advocacy groups, and rarely announced.
The groups allege that the district delayed developing an individualized education program for a seventh-grader, who had behavioral problems and was suspended three times and missed more than 10 days of school in two months.
In another case, a sixth-grader with a learning disability received numerous in-school suspensions, but the district did not provide him with more special-education services or develop a plan to address his behavior, according to the release. The district also didn't tell his mother he had been placed indefinitely in in-school suspension, the agencies allege.
Federal law requires school districts to consider a child's disablity when determining the appropriate disciplinary action. Districts are also required to develop individualized education plans for disable students in order to meeting their specific needs.The Beaufort Gazette and Island Packet have filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the complaint with the education department.
The release also alleges that disabled black students are suspended at a higher rate than disabled white students and cites 2009 data from the federal Office for Civil Rights to support that claim.
According to that data, about 22 percent of black students with disabilities received more than one in-school suspension. About 10 percent of white disabled students faced more than one in-school suspension.
The agencies don't cite other OCR data, which says about eight percent of black students with disabilities were suspended from school once, compared to about seven percent of white disabled students.
Suggs said four of the five students involved in the complaint are black.
According to district data, about 40 percent of its 2,192 disabled students are black. About 63 percent of the 323 disabled students suspended in 2011-12 were black.
Foster said an annual performance report from the state education department determined that the district did not have a "significant discrepancy" in the rate of suspensions and expulsions of disabled students.
S.C. Department of Education spokesman Ragley said the department received the complaint Tuesday, and would investigate the allegations.
Federal law requires that investigation, which could include site visits and interviews with parents and district staff, to wrap up in 60 days, Ragley said. If the allegations are true, corrective action would need to take place, he said.
It's the first complaint about treatment of disabled students against the district in the 2011-12 year, Ragley said. Across the state, 29 complaints were filed this school year.
Foster said the state department had found the district did not violate federal law in the three complaints filed against it since 2009.