Pathways to stop accepting public school students

The Pathways in Education facility in Oil City has notified local school districts that beginning Nov. 1, it won’t be accepting public school students in its disciplinary alternative education programs.

Nate Neely, administrator of Pathways In Education in Oil City, said Tuesday the decision to close the Alternative Education for Disrupted Youth (AEDY) program for public school students resulted from new mandates and regulations recently instituted by the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) “that would cost the AEDY providers a fortune to try to implement.”

Neely said the PDE issued these new regulations to comply with an agreement between the PDE and the U.S. Department of Justice that settled a 2013 lawsuit filed on behalf of a Pennsylvania student against the PDE.

“We heard rumors of this initiative from the PDE being moved forward over the last several months,” said Neely. “We had a conference call with the PDE October 16, and then we called the (school) districts Monday. We chose the November 1 date because it is the end of the semester and provides the smoothest transition,” Neely added.

Franklin School District Superintendent Pamela Dye notified Franklin School Board members about the change at Monday’s board meeting.

In discussing the change, Dye said the local districts have very few options in sending students to other AEDY programs. Keystone SMILES runs an AEDY program, but it has very few places currently open, Dye told the board.

“All the local schools are going to be in the same boat,” Dye said.

Kevin Briggs, superintendent of Valley Grove School District, agreed, and he said Tuesday “it is difficult to know what to do. There are not a whole lot of options out there. We are trying to figure out what to do with the one or two students that are in that program.”

Neely said the new regulations will “affect just a small piece of Pathways (in Oil City).”

“We have a lot of remaining programs, such as the residential programs, the shelters for boys and girls, independent living for boys and girls, and AEDY programs for private school students,” Neely said.

A press release from the Education Law Center (ELC) says the complaint that triggered the “civil rights investigation” was filed by the ELC to challenge “discriminatory practices in the state’s disciplinary ‘alternative education’ programs.”

ELC’s “complaint highlighted the high percentages of students with disabilities and African American students in AEDY,” the release stated.

ELC said more than half the students sent to AEDY programs “were students with disabilities, compared to a 16 percent special education population statewide.”

African American students make up 35 percent of those placed in the AEDY programs, ELC claimed, but only 15 percent of all Pennsylvania students.

The agreement, entitled “Settlement Agreement Between the United States and the Pennsylvania Department of Education,” says two specific violations were alleged against PDE. The first was that students were referred to AEDY programs on the basis of their disabilities which denied them “equal opportunities to access and participate in equal education experiences.”

The second was that the AEDY programs under the PDE failed to provide English Learners (ELs) “with appropriate language services.”

The settlement provided that students with disabilities “should not be placed in AEDY programs for behavior that is a manifestation of their disability.”

It also stipulated that “English learners” must receive the language assistance services to which they are eligible.

The lawsuit also addressed the degree of administrative control the PDE had over “local educational agencies” (LEAs).

The settlement stated that the PDE’s position, “based on its interpretation of Pennsylvania law,” was that “LEAs are directly responsible for making decisions related to the education of their respective students, and PDE’s authority over AEDY programs is limited to approval and general oversight.”

The Department of Justice, however, judged that the PDE is responsible for administrating the education of those students placed in AEDY programs.

The 27-page settlement provides extensive further legal ramifications for the AEDYs arising from the fact the PDE must enforce its compliance to additional mandates and regulations.

The ELC criticized one aspect of the agreement – saying in its press release that “the glaring problem is that this agreement does nothing to address the disproportionate placement of African American students into AEDY programs, a central component of our original complaint.”

The PDE, ELC said, “should take this opportunity to start monitoring and proactively addressing racial disparities.”