Will special needs kids get the help they deserve in MPS?


That was all I could say when I heard that the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in favor of the Milwaukee Public Schools and tossed- out the 11- year- old “Jamie S case.”

I remember the day the suit was filed against MPS. It was September 13, 2001. I remember it well because of what had happened two days earlier. I covered that lawsuit for 7 years! Doing a story every 6 months or so at first, then only when something big was happening, like when the Department of Public Instruction settled with Disability Rights Wisconsin in 2008.

The suit claimed that “Jamie S.” who was only 8 when the fight began, and other special needs students did not get into special services in the district. Later, it added that the DPI did not do a good job of overseeing MPS so that it would give appropriate services.

Over the years, I interviewed the mother of the plaintiff and talked to the law firm that MPS hired to defend its case. We probably can’t add high enough to figure how many millions and millions of dollars were spent on this lawsuit. MPS said it was all covered by its insurance, but a lawsuit that lasts for 11 years is more than suing for somebody slipping on the ice in your driveway.

MPS has claimed victory and Superintendent Gregory Thornton told the media “We will continue to provide quality special education services for Milwaukee’s children”.

OK, well in the time it has taken for the lawsuit to crawl through the courts, thousands of students have come and gone through the Milwaukee Public Schools. Hundreds needed extra attention because of their special needs. Plans were created and things got a little better. Now, without a lawsuit hanging over its head, will the MPS give the kids with special needs all the help they deserve? Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 11 years to find out.


  • CarolV says:

    I feel the same way. I hope any wakeup call that MPS got from this will be longstanding and within the plans for ensuring college readiness and creating a talent dividend that kids w/disabilities will NOT fall through the cracks. That was a long, drawn out case and some remediations were done. I hope it will be long term and sustainable.

  • Jay Bullock says:

    Joanne, since you covered the suit (I watched from within the belly of the beast and saw its ramifications in my classroom), I wonder if you have any thoughts about Judge Sykes’s treatment of the UW-Whitewater professor’s expert testimony. Though the decision last week did not hinge upon her testimony, Judge Sykes suggested very strongly that her work did not meet the federal rules of evidence for expert testimony and should never have been considered. That the trial judge gave so much weight to her findings significantly influenced the corrective action plan and settlement from DPI. How did you find her and that part of the trial?

    As I noted in my own post Monday, I don’t think the changes rolled out in classrooms will be rolled back, and instead what MPS gains is leverage over DPI. I think the concern you express is reasonable, but unlikely to turn out to be the case.

  • Roseann St. Aubin says:

    Joanne –
    You raise a hypothetical question in your commentary as to whether MPS kids will get the help they deserve. We assert the answer is an emphatic YES. They have been, are now, and will be getting the help they deserve.

    MPS is assisting more than 17,000 children through Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) this year. When the suit was filed that number was about 9,000. Even with the high number of children with special needs, we have an extremely low rate of complaints from parents. We are proud to serve special education children. The quality of that service was NOT in question in the lawsuit.

    Special education students in MPS make up almost 20% of our student body now – a rate higher than that in any other urban school district. Some say the rate is so high because the Milwaukee voucher schools are not required to serve children for whom anything more than minimal accomodations are needed.

    Thank you to SchoolMatters for allowing replies to commentaries. The discussion does need to continue, because all children in Milwaukee deserve access to programs that will help them to succeed.

    • SchoolMattersMKE says:

      Thank you for commenting, Roseann! We’re looking to open conversations. We want to talk with Milwaukee, not at it.

  • Roseann St. Aubin says:

    Just clarifying –
    In my response above I stated that at the time the suit was filed there were 9,000 children identified for services. There were actually 17,000 – a number consistent with the current level – even though the total student population has decreased since that time.

    Thanks for allowing the clarification.

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