Felix consent decree
nears end

Preliminary approval is given to
a plan to finish court oversight
of special education

After nearly 11 years a federal class-action lawsuit filed against the state for failing to provide appropriate public education for special-needs students is nearing an end.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra gave preliminary approval yesterday to a plan proposed by the state and attorneys for plaintiff Jennifer Felix to terminate a federal consent decree, ending court oversight of the state's efforts to provide educational and mental health services to special-needs students.

But he stressed that the court is not abandoning those affected by the consent decree.

Ezra is expected to approve the plan at a hearing in U.S. District Court on April 8 after the public and plaintiffs have an opportunity to comment. Unless the court finds the state has not fulfilled its obligations, the case will be dismissed around June 2005.

State and Felix attorneys lauded the proposed plan yesterday as a significant step.

"It continues federal oversight; it reaffirms the commitment of this administration to do what other administrations have done to provide a system of care," said Eric Seitz, one of the Felix attorneys.

The state has come a long way, and it is because of the good work by the state departments of Education and Health and others who have worked on the case for so long, said state Attorney General Mark Bennett.

"The state executive, Legislature, Department of Education and Department of Health understands our obligation and takes them seriously, and ultimate dismissal (of the case) is dependent on meeting those obligations," he told the court yesterday.

The proposed plan stipulates that the state must:

-- Provide free, appropriate public education to all special-education children and to the Felix class.

-- Continue seeking out children with learning disabilities and emotional or behavioral difficulties.

-- Provide services to children as outlined in their individualized education programs in a "consistent and timely manner."

-- Continue preparing quarterly reports and posting them publicly on the Internet.

The plan also ends the services of the court monitor and special master and the state's obligation to pay for the plaintiff attorneys' fees and costs.

Seitz said they will continue to monitor the hiring and funding of critical positions that affect the quality and quantity of services that reach the students.

Schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto said she is confident that the system of care and accountability will be sustained.

The quarterly reports prepared by the department as outlined in the proposal will ensure that they accomplish that, Hamamoto said.

Frankie Servetti-Coleman sued the state in 1993 on behalf of her daughter Jennifer Felix for violating federal law by failing to provide appropriate educational and mental health services to children with disabilities. The Felix consent decree was approved the following year, setting out the benchmarks the state departments of Education and Health needed to satisfy federal mandates.

There are currently about 26,000 special-education students with learning disabilities, and just less than 10,000 of those have been identified as Felix class with behavioral health issues, according to the Department of Education.

Anyone interested in commenting on the proposal should submit written comments by April 1 to Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright, Attn: Jeffrey S. Portnoy, Felix Special Master, P.O. Box 939, Honolulu, HI, 96806. A complete copy of the proposal can be requested by calling Holly Shikada, Education Division, Department of the Attorney General, at 586-1255.


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