Governor Signs Bill To Help Parents of Children with Special Needs

 Law aims to assist parents in fighting denial of educational services for their children

 DOVER – Governor Jack Markell signed legislation today which supports the ability for parents of children with special needs to advocate for their families. On hand to offer support and insight regarding the intrinsic value of this law were Lt. Governor Matt Denn and Representative Quinn Johnson, along with members of Delaware’s disability community.

 “There is no better advocate for a child with special needs than his or her parents,” said Governor Markell. “But when parents are forced to seek outside support and expertise, it’s important that cost not impede them from doing so.”

 The law, which was introduced as House Bill 365 in early June and quickly passed the House and Senate, makes it possible for parents who successfully challenge denials of services to their children with special needs to be reimbursed for the costs of hiring expert witnesses they have been forced to use for their successful appeals. It returns to Delaware a right that parents of children with special needs had until 2006, when the United States Supreme Court revoked it; the right to have the money they spend on doctors and diagnostic tests to pursue an appeal for their children reimbursed if it turns out they were right and the school was wrong. 

 “This law, quite simply, will dramatically improve the ability of parents who have children with special needs to advocate for their kids in our public schools.” said Lt. Governor Denn, author of the bill.  “All these parents ask from the state is that it treats their children fairly, and that it gives them a chance to fulfill their potential.”

  Currently, when children with special needs are denied educational services, they must go through a hearing process set up under federal and state law. The process often requires the parents or guardians to hire an expert and/or have diagnostic tests administered, which can be prohibitively expensive. Many parents are unable to advocate for their children with special needs because they cannot afford to pay the costs for experts or tests. As a result, many children with special needs do not receive services that their parents and medical providers firmly believe are necessary to the children’s educational success. 

 Rep. Quinn Johnson, who sponsored the bill, said that while the new law doesn’t guarantee parents will be reimbursed for experts or tests, it gives them a certain level of comfort that they will be if they are successful.

 “School districts have a full arsenal they can bring to the table during these proceedings. Often times, districts come in with experts, while the parents come in by themselves. It’s a real David versus Goliath situation,” said Rep. Johnson, D-Middletown. “This law will make sure parents are on an even playing field when fighting for services that their children need.”


Governor Signs Justice Reinvestment Act

Reforms Focused on Improving Public Safety Efficiency and Effectiveness

 

WILMINGTON –   Surrounded by a group of leading judges, legislators, attorneys, law enforcement professionals and corrections officials, including representatives from the United States Department of Justice, Governor Markell signed into law at New Castle County Police Headquarters Senate Bill 226, which implements recommendations of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force created in July 2011 by Executive Order Number 27.   The Task Force released a report in March 2012 that identifies new strategies to reduce crime and recidivism,  protect and support victims, hold offenders accountable, and focus efforts on offenders that present the greatest threat.  

 

Sponsored by a bipartisan group of legislators, the Justice Reinvestment Act (SB 226) promotes informed decision-making in the criminal justice system by institutionalizing the use of evidenced-based practices in decisions concerning bail, rehabilitation and probation supervision, and helps ensure scarce resources are focused on higher-risk offenders. 

 

“We owe it to Delawareans to ensure that our criminal justice spending is wisely invested to have the biggest impact on public safety.  If we can properly allocate that spending to focus on programming that reduces recidivism and prevents future crime we can have a significant impact on the safety of our communities,” said Governor Jack Markell.  “The Justice Reinvestment Task Force has developed a set of recommendations that could have significant impact.” 

 

S.B. 226 includes the following key provisions:

 

·         Pretrial Risk Assessment. The Act requires implementation of an objective assessment instrument that gauges defendants’ risk of flight and re-arrest to help magistrates make informed decisions about the terms or conditions of pre-trial release. The Act also requires the Statistical Analysis Center (SAC) to provide magistrates with data on rates of re-arrest and failures to appear for scheduled court dates, creating a track record for release decisions and help improve future decision-making.

·         Risk and Needs Information at Sentencing. The Act provides that the court may request an objective risk and needs assessment by the Department of Correction (DOC) for use in sentencing.

·         Program Completion and Earned Compliance Credits. To incentivize completion of evidence-based programs that reduce recidivism, offenders may reduce time served by up to 60 days per year if they complete programs successfully. Offenders under community supervision may earn credit for successful compliance with conditions of probation.

·         Case Planning. The Act requires DOC to use a risk assessment instrument for case planning and will use evidence-based programs to reduce offender risk.

·         Assessment of Community-Based Services. The Act directs the DOC to evaluate the availability of community-based programs that reduce risk of re-offense.

·         Recidivism Study. The SAC is required to produce annually a recidivism report of one-year, two-year, and three-year rates of re-arrest, reconviction and recommitment.

 

“This new law will help focus our resources on making sure our limited prison space is used for the people who pose the greatest danger to society while ensuring that everyone who breaks the law is still held accountable,” said Senate Majority Leader Patricia Blevins, D-Elsmere, who sponsored the measure. “It represents a real effort by our criminal justice community to modernize the way we handle offenders throughout the process.”

 

Senator Liane Sorenson (R-Hockessin) who, along with the other primary sponsors of the bill, served on the task force says what she likes best about the bill is the use of evidence-based practices.

 

“Every issue we looked at we looked at the numbers,” Sorenson said. “We looked at the numbers for Delaware, we looked at the numbers nationally, and in other states to see where we stacked up. We looked at what we could do differently, what’s been working smoothly and where there were problems. This is the result of that process.”

 

State Representative Greg Lavelle (R-Sharpley), a member of the Justice Reinvestment Task Force, said, “It was an honor to be part of this process.  The task force focused on dealing with systemic problems within the criminal justice system and I believe Senate Bill 226 will go a long way toward lowering Delaware’s recidivism rate, as well as ensuring that higher-risk offenders are held more accountable and that our probation and parole populations are better supervised.  This new law will also ensure that tax dollars being spent within the criminal justice system are used in the most efficient manner.  I look forward to improved outcomes as a result of today’s enactment.”

The law signed today sets us on a path toward meeting the goals of the Task Force,” said Drew Fennell, Executive Director of the Delaware Criminal Justice Council.  “The provisions of SB226 are intended to reduce recidivism—the rate at which those exiting prison commit new crimes. Recidivism is the best measure of a prison system’s effectiveness, and reducing recidivism is the key to public safety. Research shows that the most effective use of corrections dollars is to target moderate- to high-risk offenders.  By concentrating prison and supervision resources on these individuals, Delaware positions itself to protect public safety using the best available science.”

The State of Delaware spends more than $250 million annually on corrections expenses. For more than a year, the State of Delaware has been working diligently to improve the administration of our criminal justice system through our Justice Reinvestment Task Force.  Led by Lieutenant Governor Matt Denn, the Justice Reinvestment Task Force is a bipartisan and multidisciplinary group of judges, legislators, attorneys, law enforcement professionals, and corrections officials dedicated to adopting evidence-based strategies to improve public safety and allocate criminal justice resources appropriately.

 

The Governor also talked about focusing on Justice Reinvestment in his State of the State address in 2011 with the goal of identifying new strategies to reduce crime and recidivism; control the growth in the prison population, protect and support victims and focus on offenders that present the greatest threat.  

 

The State of Delaware received support for the justice reinvestment initiative from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance.  Technical support was provided by the Vera Institute of Justice, which provides assistance to government leaders to improve the systems people rely on for justice for safety.

 

See Delaware Justice Reinvestment Task Force Report

See Delaware Justice Reinvestment Initiative Fact Sheet


Governor Signs Two Bills to Combat Bullying and Help Protect Our Children

Proposals from Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor and Education Committee Chairs Become Law

Delaware State SealWILMINGTON  – Two bills that implement components to combat bullying were signed by Governor Jack Markell today at George V. Kirk Middle School in Newark.  Today’s efforts are the direct result of work done by the Lt. Governor and Attorney General in cooperation with the strong sponsorship of House and Senate Education Chairs Sen. David Sokola and Rep. Terry Schooley.

“Education is one of my top priorities,” said Governor Markell, “and having a safe, secure learning environment is fundamentally important to a child’s education.  These bills will increase the safety of young people in our schools.”

SB 193 will result in the implementation of the state’s first uniform policy to combat cyberbullying in public schools.

Lt. Gov. Matt Denn and Attorney General Beau Biden began the process of drafting the statewide cyberbullying policy this spring by holding statewide public hearings to gather factual evidence from school administrators and parents about the type of off-campus activity causing disruption in our schools.

Shortly after signing of this bill, the state’s Department of Education will propose by regulation a statewide cyberbullying policy that has been drafted by the Attorney General and Lieutenant Governor, based upon the testimony at their hearings.   After considering public comment, the Department of Education will issue a final cyberbullying policy and each public school and charter school will have 90 days to adopt the policy.  Significantly, the bill also allows the Attorney General’s office to defend school districts and charter schools if they face a legal challenge after implementing the new statewide cyberbullying policy.

“As I have visited middle schools and high schools over the past two school years, cyberbullying has consistently been raised with me by principals and teachers as a real problem that stops them from focusing on educating kids,” Lt. Governor Denn said.  “This statewide policy will allow schools to clearly tell students what type of social media conduct is unacceptable, and it will provide legal support from the Attorney General’s office for districts where the policy is challenged.”

HB 268 protects students against bullying by adding consistency in how bullying incidents are reported by schools.

The legislation addresses a lack of consistency in how bullying incidents are reported by school districts.  Under this legislation, the state Department of Education will begin auditing a small number of public schools each year to ensure that schools are properly investigating and reporting suspected incidents of bullying.  Additionally, school districts will now be required to report both substantiated and “unsubstantiated” incidents of bullying to the state Department of Education, so the Department can determine if some schools or districts are failing to properly investigate or report claims of bullying.

“There is a huge variation in how our schools report bullying,” Attorney General Biden said.  “We have some small elementary schools that report many times the number of bullying incidents as major high schools.  If we are going to combat bullying, we need to know where it is happening, and this legislation will ensure that we have that information at hand.”

Nationally, 8.2 million students are bullied each year and 1 million are cyber-bullied. About 160,000 students stay home from school on any given day because they’re afraid of being bullied. In Delaware, nearly 20 percent of students surveyed last year reported that another student issued a verbal threat against them, while 30 percent reported that they said something to another student to hurt them.

Sen. David Sokola (D-Newark), SB 193’s lead sponsor  has long been a champion of efforts to keep schools safe and to create a good environment for students to learn. The new laws, he said are a continuation of those efforts.

“Today’s technology creates educational opportunities that have never been available before but that same technology can create challenges never before anticipated. Our districts need assistance in navigating the unique legal issues related to cyberbullying to help foster a good environment for our children,” Sokola said. “Taken together, these new laws aim to move our schools’ handling of cyberbullying forward in a manner that is consistent throughout the state and to help our children have the safe and nurturing environment they deserve.”

Rep. Terry Schooley (D- Newark), who was the lead House sponsor of both bills, said that bullying has become a serious problem in schools, and with more and more students using social media, bullying has progressed beyond playground taunts. The two bills will help increase reporting of all instances and address the emerging issue of cyber-bullying.

“Bullying in any form creates fear and intimidation in our schools, and it leads to students performing poorly, not going to school for fear of being bullied or in some cases, committing suicide,” said Rep. Schooley.  “When you take into account that means of communication such as social media, computers and cell phones post information far more publicly than previous generations could ever imagine, the issue becomes even more serious. By signing these bills into law, we are trying to increase reporting and stay ahead of the curve to protect our children and grandchildren.”


Anti-Bullying Legislation Wins General Assembly Approval

Proposals from Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor and Education Committee Chairs set to become law

DOVER – A bill that implements a key component of a plan to combat cyber-bullying passed the House of Representatives on Thursday and is headed to the Governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 193, sponsored by Sen. David Sokola and Rep. Terry Schooley, allows the Attorney General’s office to defend school districts and charter schools if they face a legal challenge after implementing a statewide cyberbullying policy. Attorney General Beau Biden and Lt. Gov. Matt Denn began the process of drafting the statewide cyberbulling policy in the spring when they held statewide public hearings to gather factual evidence from school administrators and parents about the type of off-campus activity causing disruption in our schools. Once the policy is developed, the state’s Department of Education will issue regulations requiring adoption of the statewide cyberbullying policy by public school districts and charter schools.

Nationally, 8.2 million students are bullied each year and 1 million are cyber-bullied. About 160,000 students stay home from school on any given day because they’re afraid of being bullied. In Delaware, nearly 20 percent of students surveyed last year reported that another student issued a verbal threat against them, while 30 percent reported that they said something to another student to hurt them.

“The General Assembly recognized that although social networking technology has erased the boundary between the schoolyard and home, schools have had difficulty taking action against cyberbullies,” Attorney General Biden said. “This legislation changes that by making sure my office can stand behind schools trying to make their campuses the safe, supportive learning environments our kids deserve. I want to thank Lt. Gov. Denn, Sen. Sokola, and Rep. Schooley for their hard work and advocacy to make this change happen.”

“We are already hard at work developing this policy,” said Lt. Governor Denn. “We’ve held the meetings, gotten great feedback, and look forward to presenting a policy that will protect our children and let them focus on learning and being kids instead of worrying about being bullied.”

“I’m pleased to see that my colleagues in the House understand the dimensions of this problem and have acted to pass this bill,” said Sen. David Sokola (D-Newark), the bill’s lead sponsor. “It’s an issue that can have a harmful effect on safety and school climate, both of which are vital to a student’s ability to succeed in school. Fortunately, we have good guidance from the courts about how to address this in a Constitutionally-acceptable way and I’m confident that the attorney general and our education community will do just that.”

Rep. Schooley (D-Newark), who sponsored the bill in the House, said “In this age of technology, young people use many different forms of social media, computers and cell phones to communicate and publicly post information. Unfortunately, these means of communication can be used to bully other young people in a more public way than previous generations could ever imagine. By passing this bill, we are trying to stay ahead of the curve and protect our children and grandchildren from cyber-bullying and let people know that bullying in any form is wrong and should not be tolerated.”

SB 193 is part of a two-bill package from Biden, Schooley and Sokola aimed at fighting bullying. HB 268, which passed both chambers of the legislature earlier this year, protects students against bullying by adding consistency in how bullying incidents are reported by schools.

The bill requires the Department of Education to annually audit schools to ensure that they are properly investigating and reporting bullying allegations. The legislation was developed from multiple community forums Attorney General Biden has held talking to students and parents about bullying, and from conversations he and Lt. Gov. Denn have had with district superintendents.

The legislation addresses a lack of consistency in how bullying incidents are reported by school districts. For example, Laurel Middle School, which has a four-star commendable rating, had the highest number of incidents (38 in a 344-student school) during the 2010-11 school year, but William Penn High with 1,981 students had zero reported incidents. And only one incident was reported in the entire Smyrna School District. School districts would be required to report unsubstantiated claims of bullying to the state Department of Education, in addition to the current requirement for reporting substantiated claims. The current law says substantiated claims must be reported within five business days. Often it takes longer than that for a school administrator to verify a student’s claim, so the incident never gets reported.

Additionally, the Attorney General’s Office’s bullying hotline (1-800-220-5414) must be posted on each school district’s website and in a conspicuous place in each school.


Lt. Gov. Denn, Legislative Leaders Unveil Bill Helping Parents Of Children With Special Needs

Bill would assist parents in fighting denial of educational services for their children

DOVER – With members of the Delaware disability community voicing their support, Lt. Governor Matt Denn and legislative leaders unveiled a bill on Monday that would assist parents of special needs children in obtaining appropriate services for their children.

Currently, when children with special needs are denied educational services, they must go through a hearing process set up under federal and state law. The process often requires the parents or guardians to hire an expert and/or have diagnostic tests administered, which can be prohibitively expensive. Many parents are unable to advocate for their children with special needs because they cannot afford to pay the costs for experts or tests. As a result, many children with special needs do not receive services that their parents and medical providers firmly believe are necessary to the children’s educational success.

“If you are the parent of a child with special needs, appealing a school’s decision to withhold services from your child is incredibly intimidating and incredibly complicated. The law and procedures surrounding special education appeals are hard even for lawyers to understand, much less parents trying to advocate for their kids,” said Lt. Governor Denn. “As a result of the process being so intimidating and so complicated, many parents can’t effectively advocate for their kids with special needs, and their kids don’t get services they should.”

House Bill 365 would allow parents who successfully challenge denials of services to their children with special needs to be reimbursed for the costs of hiring expert witnesses that they have been forced to use for their successful appeals. Only parents and guardians who prevailed in their appeals of service denials would be entitled to recover the costs of their experts.

Rep. Quinn Johnson, who is the lead sponsor of the bill, said that while the legislation doesn’t guarantee that parents will be reimbursed for experts or tests, it gives them a certain level of comfort that they will be if they are successful.

“School districts have a full arsenal they can bring to the table during these proceedings. Often times, districts come in with experts, while the parents come in by themselves. It’s a real David versus Goliath situation,” said Rep. Johnson, D-Middletown. “This bill will make sure parents are on an even playing field when fighting for services that their children need.”

The legislation would restore a right that parents of children with special needs had under federal law until that right was revoked by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2006. The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Harris McDowell, D-Wilmington.

The bill is supported by members from groups such as Autism Delaware, the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Exceptional Citizens, Community Legal Aid Society’s Disabilities Law Program, the Developmental Disabilities Council and the Parent Information Center of Delaware.

“Parents are desperate in a lot of these cases because they can’t afford to pay for these things out of pocket,” said Pat Maichle, senior administrator for Delaware Developmental Disabilities Council. “I’ve experienced over the years with my daughter that parents are fighting a large institution. The mom and dad are sitting in a room with 10 or 20 professionals from the school district telling them that they have to do things in a certain way. The parents know what is good for their children, but they face this large institution and it’s very difficult and stressful.”

“When this Supreme Court decision came down in 2006, I was disappointed from an advocacy standpoint because I could no longer tell parents that they could fight the system and get reimbursed,” said Wendy Strauss, executive administrator of the Governor’s Advisory Committee for Exceptional Citizens. “But just last week, I told a single mom in Sussex County who is fearful that she would not be able to fight for her child with special needs that this bill was coming and that help might be on the way.”

“The many different ways in which autism manifests means specialized knowledge is always required to determine the best supports. A parent’s ability to access such expert opinions is critical to their child’s progress,” said Theda Ellis, executive director of Autism Delaware.

HB 365 will be formally filed when the House reconvenes on Tuesday.