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Federal Court Orders Flint Community Schools to Provide Access to Student Records

State-authorized advocacy agency, when acting with parents' consent, has access to records of students with disabilities

(LANSING) - On November 23, a federal court in Detroit ordered Flint Community Schools to provide copies of school records to parents of students with disabilities and Michigan's protection and advocacy agency promptly upon request.

In his opinion, U.S. District Judge David M. Lawson wrote, "the school district repeatedly and persistently has failed or refused to disclose records requested by the plaintiff within the time required under the applicable statutes and regulations." Judge Lawson granted a preliminary injunction, ordering the district to provide records within three to five business days of a request.

"This decision is an important victory for students with disabilities, not only in Flint, but throughout Michigan," said Mark Cody, Legal Director of Michigan Protection & Advocacy Service (MPAS), the state-designated protection and advocacy agency which brought the suit. "By refusing to provide timely access to school records, the District compromised the educational needs of its most vulnerable students. The Court's recognition that federal law guarantees MPAS prompt access to school records allows us to fulfill our role of zealously advocating for our clients."

MPAS brought the suit in response to Flint's failure to respond in a timely manner to requests for school records on behalf of MPAS clients. Over the past several years, MPAS has been contacted by numerous families of children with disabilities who attend school in Flint, raising concerns that the school district was violating their children's rights under federal and state law. Upon receiving notice of these alleged violations, as well as authorization from the parents, MPAS sent letters to Flint requesting copies of educational records. MPAS sought review of these records in order to develop a clear and accurate understanding of a client’s situation and determine an appropriate course of action.

Unfortunately, the District persistently ignored MPAS' requests for records or delayed in providing records for several months. Even when records were provided after lengthy delays, they were minimal and incomplete. While MPAS waited for the District to provide records, several of its clients continued to report that they believed their children with disabilities were not being adequately served by the District. Some students were suspended by the District during this period, while others were removed by their parents and transferred to other school districts rather than wait for MPAS to receive the records needed to provide them with support.

MPAS made various attempts to negotiate with the District to eliminate their practice of refusing to provide records in response to legitimate requests. Over the course of several weeks or months after receiving no response to its initial requests, MPAS sent follow-up requests to the District. MPAS also sent a letter to the interim superintendent of the District requesting a meeting to discuss how the parties could collaborate to address this issue. When these methods proved unsuccessful, MPAS was compelled to bring suit.

Parents who call MPAS for assistance are often unfamiliar with their legal rights and those of their children with disabilities in schools. They do not always understand the terminology used in schools or have complete information about the circumstances their children are facing. Some parents have been denied access to records on their own and some are simply unable to comprehend or accurately relay the information in the records. When MPAS is unable to review education records, it is impossible to investigate its clients' concerns and provide prompt and informed advocacy or legal assistance.

"With the support of the federal court behind it, MPAS can now move forward with prompt investigations of issues raised by parents of students with disabilities and provide desperately needed legal support to its clients without the delays caused by a lack of production of records," said Brad Dembs, lead MPAS attorney on the case.

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Posted on:
December 07, 2015