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NJ Governor Phil Murphy Signs Bill Approving 13th Year for Students with Disabilities

Newark, N.J., July 9 – Last month, Governor Phil Murphy (D-NJ) signed Senate Bill 3434 into law after five months of delays. This piece of legislation extends the length of educational and transitional services for eligible students with disabilities, who are slated to age out of the academic system at the age of 21. In New Jersey, the length of service extension is approximately one year.

How many students will benefit from this new law? 

According to the Disability Compendium Annual Statistics, there are 220,362 students with disabilities served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in New Jersey public schools.  Percentage wise, this represents 12.6 percent of all students in New Jersey’s K-12 schools. This might seem like a small percentage; however, every student served deserves an equal right to access resources that they need.

Unique Challenges Impacting BIPOC Students with Disabilities

Further, 51 percent of students with disabilities in New Jersey’s public school system are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) with disabilities. For many of those students, the deck is stacked against them. A key part of that is because, due to structural racism, schools are funded by local property taxes which perpetuates a cycle of poverty. Moreover, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the most central law which gives students with disabilities rights to special education, was never fully funded. President Biden has pledged to fully fund IDEA, and bills to do just that are moving in the U.S. House and Senate. However, without that funding, currently nonvisible disabilities such as ADHD are not diagnosed, and even students who do have a diagnosis and Individual Education Plan (IEP) do not get the supports they need to achieve. Frustrated, they can act out and become suspended. Black students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by suspension in schools, with more than one in four boys of color with disabilities — and nearly one in five girls of color with disabilities — receiving an out-of-school suspension.

Statistics show that unmet disability needs are a critical factor for many justice-involved youths. Researchers have found that one-third of incarcerated youth need special education services, and in some cases, up to 70 percent of justice-involved youth disclosed a learning disability. As documented by the National Council on Disability, “85 percent of youth in juvenile detention facilities have disabilities that make them eligible for special education services, yet only 37 percent receive these services while in school.” Youth of color, including English Language Learners (ELLs), are disproportionally trapped in the school-to-prison pipeline.

What this “13th Year” means for Students with Disabilities and their Families

This legislative piece and the call to sign it is a direct response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. The pandemic ceased many of the post-graduation transitional options for students with disabilities. These options include, but are not limited to, on site job training programs, community involvement programs, as well as various life skill classes that aim to help these students prepare for life after high school. These are options that would have been practiced and explored during in-person schooling, which was abruptly switched to virtual schooling, at the height of the pandemic. Governor Murphy says that American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds are going to be used to pay for the three-year extension of services. This is a year of additional services for students with disabilities in the classes of 2021, 2022, and 2023.

Gov. Phil Murphy on his commitment to New Jerseyans with Disabilities

Governor Murphy knows that this is a particularly rough adjustment period for students with disabilities, and the families that have been, and will continue to support them during their academic learning years and beyond.  The Governor was quoted saying, “The pandemic has been especially hard on students with disabilities who rely on school programs to ensure they have the skills and services they need to be successful following graduation. By providing an additional year for students who will otherwise age out allows us to acknowledge the unique impact of the pandemic on these students and help secure a better future for them and their families.”  This quote acknowledges that he not only understands the need for the legislation, but acknowledges that the impacted population will suffer greatly without the extension of services. 

Pushing More States to Embrace a 13th Year

The purpose, and need for this type of legislation in other states has been on the minds of many Disability Advocates across the U.S. Many states, to include Illinois and Massachusetts, have introduced bills that would allow students’ academic extensions.  Nevada is another state hoping that students with disabilities will get some form of an academic extension. Maybe one day a similar bill will be introduced federally, and help students with disabilities nationwide.

The delay in signing this bill caused Governor Murphy to face sharp criticism, mostly coming from families of children of those with disabilities as well as New Jersey’s Department of Education.  Those advocating for this bill felt that the Governor’s delay centered around his desire to use funding for this bill for other programs.

RespectAbility’s Perspective and Educational Resources  

As millions of students with disabilities and their parents had to deal with the pandemic and continued fluctuations between in-person, hybrid and remote learning, the national disability inclusion nonprofit RespectAbility developed and published a wide range of free resources to support students with disabilities. The updated guide, entitled Virtual Education & Students with Disabilities: Supporting Student Success in the Time of COVID-19 and Beyond, is available for free on RespectAbility’s website. The guide covers critical topics such as virtual resources from a wide range of disability advocacy organizations, home-based programs for students of all ages, live synchronous learning opportunities, social-emotional and mental health resources and state-specific information for parents of students with disabilities.

Likewise, over the past year, RespectAbility staff and board members have been advocating at the federal, state, and local level to improve supports for students with disabilities. When asked about the new 13th year of instruction for students with disabilities in New Jersey, Jaime H. Pacheco-Orozco of RespectAbility’s Board of Advisors noted that: Students with disabilities have spent a lifetime dealing with their own set of unique, extraordinary and often unfair challenges and will continue to do so. States across the country need to step forward and buffer that impact. Give students with disabilities their 13th school year. They not only deserve it: their future depends on it.”

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