Public schools

Did NYC Schools Retaliate Against Parents Who Asked Too Many Questions?

Parents of disabled children say the schools filed false neglect reports against them.


Some families say that New York City schools are making unfounded reports to child protective services in retaliation against parents of disabled children who advocate for their children's educational needs. According to a new report from the education news organization The 74, their stories are part of a larger pattern in which New York City public school employees make thousands of allegations of abuse or neglect to child protection authorities each year—only a fraction of which are substantiated. 

New York City school teachers—like most public school teachers—are subject to mandatory reporting laws which require that school employees report any suspected abuse or neglect to child welfare authorities—called the Administration for Children's Services (ACS) in New York City. While these laws are often hailed as necessary to keep children safe and detect abuse, in fact, school employees are more likely than any other group of mandatory reporters to make an unsubstantiated claim of abuse or neglect. 

According to The 74, NYC school employees made 6,500 reports of abuse or neglect to ACS from September 2022 to February 2023, but only 15 percent of them were found to be substantiated. Parents of students with disabilities were at the center of 22 percent of those reports—though disabled children only comprise 21 percent of the student body. Anna Arons, a New York University law professor, speculated that the actual share of calls relating to students with disabilities is likely higher, due to school employees' failure to mention a student's disability in the report.

"It's probably a pretty serious undercount," Arons told The 74.

Now, some parents are claiming that, after they pushed back against their school's treatment of their disabled children, school officials retaliated by filing unsubstantiated ACS reports against them, sparking extended, invasive investigations that left families feeling traumatized. 

"We were just trying to advocate for our son and find out what happened like any parent would," Michelle Diaz, whose family was subjected to an unfounded allegation, told The 74. "This is where the retaliation started."

According to Diaz and her husband, Luis, the couple faced a report of neglect after pushing school officials to explain mysterious injuries on their 7-year-old son, Tristan, who is autistic and nonverbal. The boy had been coming home from school with bruises and scratches, which school officials insisted were self-inflicted. However, after filing a Freedom of Information Act request, the Diazes found that a school employee had applied "joint compressions and massaging strategies" to their son, which they viewed as evidence of physical abuse from staff. The couple reported the injuries to police.

After Tristan missed two days of school, which the Diazes claim they called the school to have excused, a school employee reported them to ACS. While the two-month investigation turned up no evidence of mistreatment, it still left the family rattled.

"An allegation can be just like that: 1, 2, 3. And then you ruin 60 days of a family," Luis Diaz told The 74. Luis Diaz happens to work at ACS as a child welfare specialist, and he faced professional setbacks due to the investigation. "I could lose my job," he added.

The Diazes' experience is part of a larger trend. 

Paullette Healy, who helps parents during school meetings to press for disability accommodations for their children, told The 74, "Not too long after those meetings, behavior letters will come home." She says that schools will allege "there's not proper documentation for absences. And then eventually, a knock on the door from ACS. That pattern has already been established. We've seen it way too often."

Like in other parts of the country, black and Hispanic children in New York City are disproportionately likely to be subject to an ACS investigation. For example, one 2021 study found that around 20 percent of white children in New York City were the subject of an ACS investigation by the time they turn 18. For Hispanic and black children, it climbed to over 40 percent.

"They intimidate me. They bully me," Elouise Cromwell-Evans, who is black and faced an unsubstantiated ACS report related to her disabled son, told The 74. "We're a Black family in a poor neighborhood and we were homeless for five years," she added. "They're definitely placing us in a box."