NEW YORK, NY -- Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced today the filing and settlement of a lawsuit against the City School District of New Rochelle for violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 by failing to evacuate two students with disabilities from the New Rochelle High School during an actual evacuation, as well as drills. The settlement, in the form of a consent decree, was approved yesterday by U.S. District Judge Cathy Seibel.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “We think of schools as safe havens for all students, and students with disabilities are no exception. The ADA requires that students with disabilities be given the opportunity to participate meaningfully in all programs put in place by their schools – a requirement that applies with particular force to an emergency preparedness program. There is never an excuse for jeopardizing the safety of any child.”
"I am just thrilled," said Richard Feltenstein, who daughter Jennifer was one of the two impacted students.
"This was so important our family for what Jen went thought for so long," he added. "She asked many times to be removed from the third floor so she was not in harm's way and they would not move her."
Feltenstein said that the most important thing is that something like this never happen again.
"Jen was concerned that having graduated from the high school their would be no follow up," her father said "That the United States government is taking the lead in making sure there is somebody there to educate as well as enforce the law means kids should be safe as they have a right to be in our schools."
The settlement is a stunning rebuke for the school district which has repeatedly sought to minimize what took place and made numerous false and misleading statements to the family, press and DOJ investigators.
According to the Complaint and Consent Decree filed in Manhattan federal court, the District failed to provide two students with disabilities with “meaningful access” to the school’s emergency preparedness programs when it failed to evacuate them on January 31, 2013, during a school-wide evacuation, after the fire alarm was triggered as a result of a smoke condition in the electrical room of the New Rochelle High School. In addition, the investigation revealed that the District had failed to maintain evacuation plans for students with disabilities and failed to permit them to participate fully in evacuation drills. Title II of the ADA prohibits a public entity from, among other things, excluding individuals with disabilities from, or denying them the benefits of, its services, programs, or activities. To comply with Title II, a public entity must ensure that individuals with disabilities are afforded “meaningful access” to such services, benefits, and activities, including emergency preparedness programs.
In the Consent Decree, the City School District of New Rochelle expressly acknowledges “that it failed to evacuate J.F. and A.B. from the New Rochelle High School with the rest of the student body during an evacuation that occurred on January 31, 2013; the District also acknowledges that prior to January 31, 2013, it failed to ensure that J.F. and A.B. were evacuated from New Rochelle High School during some evacuation drills conducted for the New Rochelle High School student body.”
Under the Consent Decree, the District has agreed to ensure that students with disabilities are able to participate meaningfully in evacuations – whether actual evacuations or drills. The Consent Decree further requires the District to provide ADA training to all District employees, including school administration, aides, security personnel, and teachers who have students with disabilities in their classrooms. In addition, the District must obtain technical assistance from an expert approved by the United States for the purpose of creating and implementing written evacuation plans for students with disabilities. Finally, the District has agreed that upon the request of any student with a disability, it will make reasonable modifications to its policies, practices, and procedures concerning the placement of the student in particular classrooms.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Rebecca C. Martin is in charge of the case.
UPDATE: New Rochelle Schools Spokesperson Tanya Hunt issued a statement from the the District:
The City School District of New Rochelle is fully dedicated to ensuring the safety of all students at all times. The district's expanded emergency response training already underway will fulfill the agreement reached with the US Attorney's Office. The district is committed to meeting the needs of students with disabilities and to ongoing and full cooperation with the U.S. Attorney.