State: Tech must do better for disabled students

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Settlement announced with district, civil rights division

TRENTON—Cape May County Technical School district has agreed to revise its admission practices to make it easier for students with disabilities to be admitted, the acting state attorney general announced Tuesday.

According to Division on Civil Rights Director Craig T. Sashihara, the division reviewed the school’s admissions practices in response to concerns raised by parents, educators and advocates.

That review determined that the school has had a significantly lower percentage of students with disabilities enrolled compared with other schools.

For example, the Technical High School’s percentage of students with disabilities was 1.25 percent in 2009 and 5.25 percent in 2010 -- well below the statewide average of 15 percent, and well below the county-wide average in Cape May County of approximately 17.6 percent, the division said.

“When educational opportunities are offered on a competitive basis, or through a selection process, it’s important that all applicants be on equal footing, and that they be evaluated solely on their abilities – not their disabilities,” said Acting Attorney General John Hoffman in a prepared statement.

However, technical school district superintendent Nancy Hudanich said that those statistics from the division aren’t exactly accurate.

She explained that the division only included the technical school’s full time students in their data, and did not include students who share their time between the school’s technical programs and attend their home school for their core curriculum.

If those had been included, she said that the school would have a total of 691 students, 118 of which are special education students.
She also added that the years they chose to pull data from, 2009 and 2010, were years when Wildwood Catholic had announced it was closing. Hudanich said the school had a huge influx of applications that year, with 486 applications total.

“Unfortunately the office has looked at data through their eyes only,” she said. “I was really disappointed with that. It’s truly inaccurate.”

However, she said the points of the settlement released by the attorney general were accurate.

Under a settlement agreement finalized between the Division on Civil Rights and the district, the Cape May Technical High School’s admissions practices will be revised to include more students with disabilities.  

The agreement states that applicants for entry to the school will be evaluated solely on the basis of a specific set of objective criteria. The school has also removed from its application all questions concerning whether the student seeking admission has been classified as being disabled.

The settlement also states that the school’s Admissions Committee will not have access to an applicant's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) as part of the admissions process, except where an applicant’s parent has specifically requested that the committee do so.

An IEP defines the individualized objectives of a child who has been found with a disability, as defined by federal regulations. The plans are intended to help children reach educational goals.

Last, when a student who has applied for entry to the school is rejected, his or her parents will be notified of the specific reason for the denial and given an opportunity to appeal.

In addition to modifying its Technical School admissions policy, the Technical District School Board has agreed to provide training to staff members with respect to the admissions policy changes, according to an announcement from the state.

It also has agreed to provide the Division on Civil Rights with statistics on student admissions for the next three school years including the total number of applicants to the district, the total number of applicants with IEPs, and the number of applicants with IEPs who were accepted into the Technical High School.

Sashihara said that a key element of the settlement agreement is removal of the IEP Plan review from the Technical School admission process, so that students are evaluated based on a set of objective qualifications. Another key aspect is that the school will now provide a specific explanation for denying student applications, which brings transparency to the process.

 “Through this settlement, the school has created a set of policies and practices that foster greater equality in the student admissions process at Cape May Technical High School,” said Sashihara. “This is an important step, and I commend the school district for its readiness to embrace change once the issue was brought to its attention.”

She added that the Division on Civil Rights is currently looking at other schools with regard to the same issue, and that it intends to remain vigilant to ensure that students with disabilities are treated equally in all school admissions and enrollment processes.

Hoffman said that the changes to the Technical High School’s admissions practices are voluntary, and the school acknowledges no liability or wrongdoing.

Hudanich said that while the agreement was not signed until May, the technical school had implemented the new procedure for this year’s application process, which began in December.

“The district was proactive,” she said Tuesday.  

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