A non-profit legal group alleges that the Fayette County Public Schools systematically fails to identify and help students with emotional and learning disabilities, and in some cases subjects them to harsh discipline.
The allegations are contained in an administrative complaint that the Children's Law Center filed with the Kentucky Department of Education last week on behalf of 12 current or former Fayette County Schools students with learning disabilities.
It alleges that the 12 youngsters were denied services in violation of the U.S. Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, and that they represent a class of "similarly situated" students in the district who also may have been denied services.
The law center wants the state education department to name an expert to evaluate the county schools' program for identifying and disciplining students with disabilities. Corrective action should be ordered if violations of the federal act are found, the center says.
It also wants the Fayette Schools to ensure that each child named in the complaint gets an evaluation, an individual education plan, and compensatory education to make up for any lost services.
Fayette Schools Superintendent Stu Silberman said Friday that the district already has started it own investigation into the allegations.
"Preliminarily, we've received documentation contrary to some of the allegations," Silberman said in a prepared statement. "However, we will not draw any final conclusions until we have the complete information."
The law center complaint outlines the cases of several students who, it says, showed signs of learning disabilities or aggressive behavior that should have identified them as needing special education services. But it says the school system failed to identify or evaluate the students — sometimes despite pleas from parents or guardians — and instead placed them in alternative classrooms.
One case describes a child who developed behavior problems in sixth grade, and ultimately spent four years in ninth grade at Fayette County's alternative school, the Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Excellence.
According to the complaint, the child's grandmother thought her behavior problems stemmed from learning difficulties, but school officials failed to provide requested transitional help.
The complaint also says that some MLK students reported that staffers there shoved or pushed students around, or told them they were "never going to amount to anything."
Silberman said that some students assigned to MLK have "severely disrupted classrooms at their home schools or exhibited violent behavior toward staff or students." The school system tries to help them while "restoring an environment conducive to learning back in the regular classroom," he said.
But attorneys for the Children's Law Center argue that cases like those cited in their complaint demonstrate that the school system lacks an effective referral system for students with learning and emotional disabilities.
"We've presented a number of instances involving children who either have been repeatedly disciplined in the school system or had their cases sent to court with inadequate evaluations or no evaluations to determine whether they needed special education services," said Rebecca DiLoreto, the law center's litigation director. "We're not saying that there should have been no discipline in every case. But there should have been interventions put in place."
The number of cases indicates a "systemic failure" by the school system, DiLoreto contended.
The Children's Law Center, which has offices in Lexington and Covington, offers free legal services for children. Center officials said they worked closely with the Southern Poverty Law Center in preparing the Fayette County Schools complaint.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights legal organization based in Alabama, has helped bring similar actions against schools in several states under its "School to Prison Reform Project."
In one recent case, Palm Beach County, Fla., Schools agreed to develop new plans for disciplining students with disabilities.