Judge Closes Nation's First "Sheltered Workshop" Case Early, Citing Great Strides in Providence

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Etta Carmadello, Special Education Director for Providence Schools, is interviewed outside U.S. District Court Sept. 26. Onlookers, left to right, are Christopher Coleman, principal at Mount Pleasant High School; Lisa Vargas-Sinapi, Carmadello’s predecessor in the director’s post; Linda Butera Noble, former Director of Community Services at the Birch Academy at Mount Pleasant High School; and Mary Ann Carroll, the lawyer representing the city of Providence. Carroll credited Vargas-Sinapi, Noble and Carmadello in providing critical leadership that ultimately brought a landmark civil rights case against the city to a close. All photos by Anne Peters.

By Gina Macris

The U. S. District Court in Rhode Island has approved an early conclusion to the nation’s first “sheltered workshop” civil rights complaint, brought six years ago against the city of Providence, with federal officials praising the swift, comprehensive, and lasting efforts at Mount Pleasant High School to transform the lives of its students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

“The hard, tedious work you did has really had a positive effect on people’s lives,” said Judge John J. McConnell, Jr. in a hearing Sept. 26, addressing a packed gallery in a small courtroom filled with state, city, and school officials involved with developmental disability services.

When the U.S. Department of Justice first investigated in 2013, lawyers found the Birch Academy in an isolated classroom in the basement of Mount Pleasant High, where students “collated jewelry” in a sheltered workshop setting that served as a “pipeline” for a lifetime of such work, said DOJ lawyer Victoria Thomas.

The 2013 civil rights agreement in Providence, based on the Olmstead decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, was the first in the nation to address the rights of individuals with developmental disabilities to live, work, and play in their communities under the Integration Mandate of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

Today, students attend classes integrated with their typical peers. They receive services designed to help them identify and develop their own interests and skills and to try them out in two 60-day work experiences before they graduate, Thomas said. She said those internships are “life-changing” for some people. For example, Miriam Hospital has offered permanent jobs to several Birch graduates.

Mary Ann Carroll, a lawyer representing the city, said that at the outset, former schools superintendent Susan F. Lusi took swift action in empowering the redesign of the Birch program in the summer of 2013, a job that has involved changing the mindset of staff and “parents who thought that a sheltered workshop was appropriate for their children.”

Judge McConnell, in dismissing the case nine months ahead of schedule, said he imagined that resistance was similar to what he encountered decades ago as a lawyer for activists seeking to close the Ladd School, the state’s now-defunct institution for people with developmental disabilities.

“Change is hard when it has to do with human beings – how they perceive themselves and how others perceive them,” he said.

He said he tells own children that he wants them to be “problem-solvers and not problem identifiers.”

“It’s good to see public servants be problem-solvers,” McConnell said.

McConnell asked if either the DOJ or an independent court monitor had any concerns about maintaining the changes at Mount Pleasant in light of the takeover the Providence school system by the state Department of Education.

The “thought of stalling or going backward is unacceptable,” the judge said.

The monitor, Charles Moseley, said he has not spoken to state education officials about the takeover.

But Thomas, the DOJ lawyer, said she had read the outside report which prompted the state to move ahead with the takeover and found “no overlap” between the faults it found in the district as a whole and the compliance efforts at Mount Pleasant High.

Charles Moseley, Left, and Judge John J. McConnell, Jr., in the Judge’s Chambers After Court Sept. 26

Charles Moseley, Left, and Judge John J. McConnell, Jr., in the Judge’s Chambers After Court Sept. 26

Carroll, the city’s lawyer, said the changes have been made in such a way that she does not feel they will “evaporate.” Emphasizing the teamwork of key leaders in the school department and the support of current and former mayors, she said she hopes the successes at Birch can serve as a model for other cities and school departments around the country.

“The message I want people to take away is that when we work together, we can make things happen,” Carroll said.

Moseley himself is leaving the monitor’s post, but his successor will continue to keep tabs on Mount Pleasant as part of another case which grew out of the initial “Interim Settlement Agreement“ of 2013.

At least three departments of state government still have obligations under a broader, statewide consent decree signed in 2014 to bring integration into services for all Rhode Island public high school students with developmental disabilities. Once they become adults, the state must help them find regular jobs and engage in community activities. The statewide consent decree remains in effect until 2024. The Interim Settlement Agreement was to have expired July 1, 2020.

A spokeswoman for the state Department of Education affirmed its commitment to continuing the reforms at Mount Pleasant in keeping with the 2013 interim agreement and the subsequent statewide consent decree, in response to a recent question from Developmental Disability News.

The Providence school department “will be expected to continue to meet the decree requirements, and our agency will continue to provide support and technical assistance to the entire state to ensure that our school communities are meeting the Employment First policy,” said spokeswoman Meg Geoghegan.

The Employment First Policy, which has been adopted statewide, assumes that all adults with disabilities can work in the community, in keeping with the Integration Mandate of the ADA.

The end of federal oversight at Birch, which over the years has involved between 51 and 65 students at any one time, also has marked the end of Charles Moseley’s role as the independent monitor. He announced in July that he planned to step down at the end of September, citing health concerns.

The consent decree gives the state and the DOJ 30 days after they receive a letter of resignation to reach agreement on a new monitor. If they can’t agree in that time frame, according to the consent decree, each side is to submit the names of up to three candidates to the judge, who will make the decision.

In response to recent questions from Developmental Disability News, a spokesman for the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services said: “DOJ and the state continue to work collaboratively on the selection process for a replacement monitor and have kept the Court aware of their work in this important decision.”