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