Public Advocate Sues NYC Education Department

School bus in New York City

A Public Advocate in NYC is suing the city’s Education Department over a faulty computer system meant to help disabled kids get the services they need.
Image: anaglic / Shutterstock.com

Public Advocate Letitia James is suing the New York City Education Department for the failure of a computer tracking system that was supposed to help students with disabilities.

With about $130 million sunk into it, the Special Education Student Information System (SESIS) has done little to help its target audience and, according to James’s suit, actually deletes student data and has caused the city to lose out on an estimated $356 million in Medicaid reimbursements over the last several years.

There are about 200,000 students in New York City who are on individualized education plans, or IEPs, that allow them to get extra help like speech therapy. Of course, keeping track of this information is vital. That’s where SESIS was supposed to come in. Built in 2009, SESIS was meant to replace the paper system and provide more intricate data to educators trying to serve diverse student populations.

This past Monday, James filed her suit, noting that “the failure of the system is resulting in a lack of services for our most vulnerable children, and we’re basically cheating taxpayers of rightful funding from the state and federal government.

“Everyone is telling me they’re aware of it and correcting it,” she added. “But I’ve heard that before.”

A spokesman for the Education Department responded by pointing out that they have made strides to help these students, including hiring more than 300 new occupational therapists and creating more programs to help children with autism.

But this isn’t the first time New York City has been accused of not supporting the students who need it most. Last December, Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District, wrote a letter to the Education Department decrying that 83% of the city’s elementary schools are not fully accessible to students with disabilities—a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The city rejected Bharara’s claim, stating that it “inaccurately characterizes the number and geographic distribution of accessible schools.”

“It’s understood that the department inherited this mess, and it is a mess,” said Ellen McHugh, a special education advocate. “But it’s been a number of years.”

No further updates have been announced in terms of where the lawsuit or other reforms will go from here.

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