"We want parents to know how to file a complaint immediately," said Helen Gym, cofounder of Parents United for Public Education and a public school parent. "We want them to demand that their children get the service required under the law."
Federal and state special-education laws spell out rules governing the evaluation and placement of special-needs students. Those include regulations in class size, appropriate staff, services such as speech therapy and counseling, discipline, and transportation. The district for years has faced legal challenges, including some brought by the law center, from parents for failing to identify special-needs students and provide services.
The loss of counselors, assistant principals, and other staff to budget cuts this year could make matters worse.
"We're very worried," said Sonja Kerr, director of disability rights for the law center, who led the parent meeting Thursday. "And I think the individual schools are just as worried. I've been at schools this week, and the most well-meaning principals who are doing their best don't know what services they have or don't have for kids with disabilities."
She also said that in previous years, the district put out a chart with special-education officers to contact in each region.
"We usually have it a month before school," Kerr said. "We have so far not been able to get that organizational chart."
School District spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district would meet its legal requirements.
"The resources will look different, yes, but our commitment is steadfast," Gallard said, "and we're going to do our utmost to meet the needs of every child."
About 14 percent of the district's 134,000 students are in special education.
At Thursday's session, Robin Roberts, a parent of three children at Henry School in West Mount Airy, said she and her husband have not decided whether they would send their children to school Monday.
"There is no way that I as a parent am going to allow the district to take my children into a building that is not safe," she said.
Maureen Fratantoni, Home and School president at Nebinger School in South Philadelphia, said her son, an eighth grader with autism, would need an evaluation in the year ahead for his high school placement.
"They said they would have a team of teachers take control and do the [special-needs] process," she said at the law center. "No one has contacted me yet about it."
Kerr said parents have several recourses. They can file a complaint with the state Department of Education, which must investigate within 60 days. They can call an Education Department consultation line, where an expert will offer guidance and may even call the district to help resolve the problem, she said. That number is 800-879-2301. And they can request an administrative hearing through the Office for Dispute Resolution at odr-pa.org.
She said she was concerned about students whose schools were among the 24 closed by the district in June because of shrinking enrollment, and who are assigned to a new building this year. She questions whether the new schools will have the students' files and transportation arrangements.
Kerr cited the case of two children with autism: "Neither of them have a ride to school on Monday."
She noted that she visited a school in the last week that was starting the year without an assistant principal and wondered whether enough staff would be in place to help students with behavioral problems.
Kerr also questioned how some schools would get by without a full-time counselor. Some special-education students, for example, require physical accommodations when taking a test: "It's your counselor who helps you on that."
Contact Susan Snyder at 215-854-4693 or email@example.com or follow on Twitter @ssnyderinq. Read her blog at www.inquirer.com/campusinq.