OCR Rules School District Violated 504 by Isolating Special Needs Students in a Portable Classroom

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The Office for Civil Rights found  that a Tennessee school district violated Section 504 when it placed 14 middle schoolers with severe disabilities in a self-contained classroom that was housed in two portable buildings outside the main school building. Marion County (TN) School District 11 LRP 59226 (OCR May 2011). The school district had created the Child Development Class (CDC) to serve students whose disabilities required intensive educational interventions and who the school thought required direct supervision in order to benefit from participation in the general education program. An individual complained to OCR. The complainant was not concerned that the classroom was self-contained, but was very concerned about placing the students in portable buildings outside the main building on the middle school campus. She felt that, as a result of the separate and segregated setting, the students were viewed differently and were ridiculed because they were taught in separate portable buildings. The complainant said that some non-disabled students referred to the CDC program as the "dumb house". One CDC student, who wanted to fit in with other students, was allegedly asked to "dance" by students without disabilities and was laughed at when she did.

Accepting the complaint for investigation, the Office for Civil Rights  noted at the outset that Section 504 prohibits school districts from providing students with disabilities less opportunities to participate than their typical peers and from denying them comparable facilities. As a result of its investigation, OCR determined that the CDC Program's location isolated the students. According to OCR, "They use a separate entrance, use separate restrooms, and do not have the equal interactive opportunities as their non-disabled peers in places such as the hallways and bathrooms." The OCR also noted that the CDC classroom was not a comparable facility, because unlike the rest of the student population, CDC students had to walk outside, potentially in bad weather, to participate in main building activities. Thus, isolating these students with disabilities in separate portable buildings violated Section 504. To remedy the violation, the school district agreed to move the CDC program into two classrooms in the main middle school building and to locate the classrooms adjacent to restrooms.