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Montessori Academy Discriminated Against Autistic Child, Says DOJ

Montessori Academy Discriminated Against Autistic Child, Says DOJ

The US Department of Justice has ruled that a state-funded private preschool program, Beginning Montessori Academy in Baldwin Park, California, discriminated against an autistic child. According to the settlement agreement, after attending the school “for some time,” the child’s mother, Kathy Castaneda, was informed by the school that

…[the child] would not be accepted for the following school year and that as of July 1, 2008, the Montessori Academy would no longer accept any child with autism or any specialized condition or need.

The Montessori Academy is a “a 100% State Funded private preschool program that provides preschool educational services” and therefore a place of public accommodation. The child’s parents sued the Montessori Academy, saying that it was in violation of Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As a news release from the Department of Justice states, Title III also “prohibits private entities that offer public accommodations, like the Montessori Academy, from excluding people with disabilities, including people with autism, from full and equal enjoyment of the services provided.”

Indeed, under the settlement agreement, the Montessori Academy (my emphases in boldface):

…. will ensure that it will not discriminate against any individual on the basis of disability, including autism. The Montessori Academy agrees to provide children with disabilities an equal opportunity to attend the Montessori Academy and to participate in all programs, services or activities. The school has also agreed to make reasonable modifications in policies, practices or procedures when such modifications are necessary to afford its child care services and facilities to children with disabilities, except when doing so would cause a fundamental alteration of its services or when the child’s participation in programs, services or activities causes a direct threat to others. The Montessori Academy will also pay $5,000 to the party affected by the school’s previous policies.

The Montessori Academy is also charged with providing “appropriate training” to all those who interview and screen children applying to the school and those who will be considering “requests for reasonable modifications of any Montessori Academy policy, practice or procedure.” Also, the school is to “provide training to the teacher(s) who is directly responsible for any child enrolled at the Montessori Academy who has been identified by his or her parent as being diagnosed with autism.” This training is to include “a general overview of autism” and of the accommodations and assistance a child on the autism spectrum might need; this training can be provided “by the parent or guardian of the child, or by a qualified person agreed upon by the parents or guardians.”

This case is notable as the school in question, the Montessori Academy, is a private school, though it does receive state funding — indeed, all of its funding — for its preschool program. All children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Had the Montessori Academy not received state funding for its preschool program, the story would have been different. 

Nonetheless, the Montessori Academy’s decision not to re-enroll the child in question — a child who had been in school “for some time” — is in itself troubling and brings into question its commitment to teaching autistic children and children with disabilities. In finding programs for my son, there have been more than a few times that programs have enthusiastically enrolled him, only to inform us that he can no longer participate, even though we routinely go out of our way to inform programs about our son’s behavioral and other challenges. 

I’m glad the settlement agreement specifically calls for training of teachers and staff, and even by the parents: Teaching kids like my son is both a science and an art. He can do very well, but needs, yes, accommodations and we are more than happy to inform people of these; we understand if, on hearing what our son needs, they choose not to enroll him. But if a program or school says they can educate an autistic child, they need to follow through as the Justice Department’s decision in the case of the child and the Montessori Academy underscores.

 

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Photo of a Montessori classroom by abbamouse (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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37 comments

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3:23PM PDT on May 28, 2011

Its amazing and unreal just how little most know. I am a parent of an amazing lil 3 year old girl that has been diagnosed with Autism. Someone referred me to this article as I am in the process of placing my child in a Montessori Preschool. I guess they wanted me to see how some Montessori teachers felt about this topic. I have to say I am very dissapointed and am praying that the Montessori I am looking into doesnt have teachers with such dislike for children with disabilities.

3:21PM PDT on May 28, 2011

Its amazing and unreal just how little most know. I am a parent of an amazing lil 3 year old girl that has been diagnosed with Autism. Someone referred me to this article as I am in the process of placing my child in a Montessori Preschool. I guess they wanted me to see how some Montessori teachers felt about this topic. I have to say I am very dissapointed and am praying that the Montessori I am looking into doesnt have teachers with such dislike for children with disabilities.

4:29PM PDT on May 23, 2011

Have the school changed policy? Did everyone get the same letter? Are the teachers not trained to teach children with autism? Maybe it was in the childs best interest and would get a better standard of education elsewhere.

8:59AM PDT on May 22, 2011

thanks x posting this

9:22PM PDT on May 21, 2011

If it is state funded, it shouldn't discriminate, but I agree with Helen K., that kids with special needs may be better served in special ed, rather than diluting the regular kids' education because the special needs kid gets all the teachers attention.

10:26AM PDT on May 21, 2011

Thanks for sharing this.

11:48PM PDT on May 20, 2011

Raising a challenged child is tough. I have a friend who has been raising one for nearly 30 years, while she had to work full-time to provide support for him.

There should be alternative schools in every major city wherein the teachers and care givers are well-trained to deal with all the specialized needs of these children. Some will never be able to scholastically assimilate to their classmates. And when a teacher is constantly interrupted from teaching the ones who really CAN learn, to control the outbursts of those who never will, it's not appropriate for any of the children.

11:14PM PDT on May 20, 2011

Counter-intuitively, mainstreaming students with autism or other disabilities can be academically and socially beneficial for all students involved. Done with a supportive attitude, it improves cooperation, and develops higher level social skills for all. All students benefit from the extra resources required for students with autism. It requires more creative skills, but the changes benefit all students. Maria Montessori's method originated as a way to teach children with disabilities, so it is particularly suited to inclusion.

10:19PM PDT on May 20, 2011

I'm a teacher at a private Montessori school, myself. There are a few things people need to understand about Montessori; although it started as an institution for disabled children, it is nowadays adapted mostly for enrolling normal kids. So unless there's a full-time autism therapist employed at this school, it's better to enroll disabled kids into a special-needs school.

8:06PM PDT on May 20, 2011

Elizabeth K. and Helen K. are also correct in the sense that additional inroads are needed to address special education applications. Peers can assist in this to a degree and the preparation of these resources is a big part of the puzzle. Perhaps a special configuration of the learning platforms with a mentor at the hub to observe and monitor progress of the entities and later blended as best methodologies dictate at this time. We know how dynamic education is and must always be alert to the smallest nuance that may help us improve any aspect therein.

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Kristina Chew Kristina Chew teaches ancient Greek, Latin and Classics at Saint Peter's University in New Jersey.... more
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