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Students with Reading Disorders Sue Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) for Failing to Educate Them

Berkeley, Calif. — Disability rights lawyers filed a complaint in federal court today against Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD), the BUSD Superintendent, the BUSD Board of Education, and the Directors of the BUSD Board of Education, for systemically failing to educate students with reading disorders, and students who are suspected to have reading disorders. BUSD is being sued for failure to comply with federal and state laws that ensure all students receive a free appropriate public education. The lawsuit was filed by Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund (DREDF), Jacobson Education Law, Inc., and international law firm Goodwin with the United States District Court for the Northern District of California.

“This is a civil rights class action that challenges a school district’s failure to teach children with reading disorders such as dyslexia to learn to read,” said Larisa Cummings, DREDF Staff Attorney. “Without appropriate reading intervention services, these students fall further and further behind academically. Students with reading disorders in BUSD and every public school in this country have the fundamental right to learn to read and participate fully with their peers.”

Children with reading disorders have extreme difficulty learning skills needed to become literate, such as decoding (sounding out) words. Many children with reading disabilities are incredibly intelligent and simply need to be taught how to read in different ways than their peers. Reading disorders are prevalent and affect many people. It is estimated that 6 to 17 percent of the population in the United States demonstrates some sign of dyslexia, making it the most prevalent learning disability by far.

Despite being aware for years of needed changes to its policies and practices, BUSD has systemically failed to identify, evaluate, and provide appropriate reading intervention services and accommodations to students with reading disorders that are necessary for them to learn to read and advance academically from grade to grade.

Named plaintiffs, some of whom have special educational plans known as Individualized Education Programs (IEP) or Section 504 plans in place, have nevertheless struggled unnecessarily with literacy because of the district’s across-the-board refusals. As a result, plaintiffs are at risk of multiple academic, developmental, and social-emotional harms that could have devastating lifelong consequences. Plaintiffs represent a purported class of current and future students who experience or will experience similar failures that start upon entering the district and persist through high school years:

  • Student A is a 2nd grader at a BUSD elementary school. This school year, BUSD determined that she is ineligible for an IEP, despite having clear characteristics of a child with a reading disorder and associated high levels of academic frustration that were evident when she entered the district in kindergarten and which have continued. Trying to keep her from emotional suffering, and falling further behind her peers, this student’s parents have had to privately fund educational services the district is obligated to provide.
  • Student B is a 4th grader at a BUSD elementary school with learning disabilities who received an IEP after over a year of delay and no early intervention reading services. Although he has an IEP now, the district has deprived him of direct, appropriate academic interventions and services, and as a result, this student has experienced severe losses of educational opportunity, and developmental detriment. He currently reads years behind his peers.
  • Student C is a 9th grader at Berkeley High School who previously attended private school. Upon entering BUSD for this school year, the district provided an inadequate IEP with inappropriate goals and no meaningful services to address his significant academic needs due to his inability to read at or near his grade level. The district’s failures include a refusal to provide appropriate or useful assistive technology that is necessary for him to access the curriculum.
  • Student D is a 12th grader at Berkeley High School who previously attended private school that provided some accommodations she needed, while her parents privately paid for intensive academic interventions and supports. She became a successful student despite her struggles with reading. Upon entering high school in BUSD, the district refused to provide her with any reading intervention services or accommodations that she is entitled to as student with a disability, including extra time on tests and assistive technology. BUSD failed to conduct any evaluations before one district representative unilaterally found her ineligible for such services. When pressed, BUSD provided her with a 504 plan in the middle of 10th grade. It contained minimal accommodations that are insufficient to remediate her reading disorder. Throughout high school, while her parents continued to privately pay for services and supports, she struggled to access the curriculum and participate due to the district’s repeated failures.

“This case is critically important because learning to read is a cornerstone of education and is the foundation of lifelong learning,” said Shane Brun, Partner, Goodwin. “Students with reading disorders have every ability to stay on track with their peers, provided they have the right accommodations and tools to do so. But without them, as is the case for so many in BUSD, students with reading disorders face immense challenges and lose precious opportunities to succeed and keep up with their counterparts.”

The suit contends that BUSD is failing to comply with federal and state laws, and implement regulations (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and California Education Code Sections 56000 et seq.). Deborah Jacobson of Jacobson Education Law, Inc. said, “What’s happening in BUSD matters because, in California alone, it’s estimated that more than 1 million students in K-12 public schools display signs of dyslexia. This is potentially an entire population of children who will struggle needlessly and possibly enter society functionally illiterate, no matter how intelligent, driven and capable they are. I’ve seen too many families in the BUSD have to resort to extreme measures including homeschooling just so their children with reading disorders are spared the shame and emotional trauma of not learning to read alongside their peers.”

The case number is 3:17-cv-02510.