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Dec 2, 2010 9:26 PM by Alison Haynes

SPLC takes state-run N.O. schools to task

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - A civil rights organization complained Thursday about discipline practices and a lack of services for children with disabilities in New Orleans public schools that were taken over by the state after Hurricane Katrina.
The Southern Poverty Law Center said only 6.8 percent of students with disabilities graduate in schools run by the Louisiana Recovery School District, the state agency that now runs most New Orleans schools.
As it released a study called "Access Denied," the SPLC also complained about disciplinary practices, saying the Recovery District schools had expulsion rates 100 times the national average in the 2007-08 school year.
Louisiana Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek countered that the state already has taken steps to address issues in the SPLC's report. He accused the group of trying to influence the state education board's pending decision, expected next week, on whether and when to return the schools to local control.
The SPLC recently settled a lawsuit with the recovery district over the use of handcuffs on a 6-year-old student. The settlement was announced last month and the state agreed to prohibit the use of fixed restraints, limit the use of handcuffs and have security personnel at the schools receive training on the settlement terms.
In its report, released Thursday, the organization said schools fail to compile data on allegations of abusive security practices. But it cited anecdotal evidence of handcuffing, shackling and physical assaults on students.
At a news conference, two students, one 13 and one 14, said they had been handcuffed or struck by security guards for minor offenses at public schools they used to attend. And Kelly Fischer, mother of a blind 8-year-old boy with autism, said the state does little to help her find services for her son.
Fischer said she was having trouble finding a state-supervised charter school that would accept him or that had the staff and materials to work with him. "Where do you get appropriate services in the New Orleans schools system? That's a good question. I can tell you where you don't get them," she said.
The SPLC report comes as state and local education officials debate whether and when the dozens of schools taken over by the state after Katrina should be returned to local control. The Orleans Parish School system retained only a handful of high-performing schools after levee breaks during Katrina flooded the city and shut down the school system.
Pastorek has said he doesn't want any schools transferred back to local governance until the 2012-13 school year, and only after they meet certain grading benchmarks. He said about 10 of 68 New Orleans schools run by the state meet the eligibility requirements he outlined.
"It is clear that the Southern Poverty Law Center is attempting to unfairly taint and influence the outcome of this critical decision - and without regard to the facts or our recent attempts to work with them to address these concerns," Pastorek said in a statement released Thursday evening.
Before Katrina, New Orleans schools were beset by discipline problems and poor academic performance and the school system suffered from corruption. Federal officials obtained guilty pleas or convictions in close to 30 cases involving school system employees over the past several years and the former president of the school board was sentenced earlier this year to 18 months in federal prison for her role in a bribery scheme.
Shakti Belway, an SPLC attorney, acknowledged Thursday that problems in the schools existed before the state takeover. But she said the takeover, which led to many schools being turned over to independent charter agencies, is being held up as a model in education reform. She said the accolades should not overshadow problems that remain and that must be addressed by state education officials.
"These issues continue at a rate that is unacceptable," she said.

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