Demonstrating NYC’s Failure To Educate, And Support Students With Emotional Disability Classification

November 28, 2023

Approximately 7,000 NYC public school students who are classified with Emotional Disability (ED) and have a wide range of mental health issues are facing extensive discrimination.

They are doing this at the hands of the NYC Department of Education (DOE), according to “A CRISIS IN SPECIAL EDUCATION: New York City’s Failure to Educate Students Classified with ‘Emotional Disability,’” a report released today by New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a civil rights and legal services advocate for New Yorkers. These students are disproportionately students of color and from economically disadvantaged backgrounds: approximately 50% of students classified with ED are Black, 40% are Latino, and 90% are eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch. For years, the DOE has systematically disregarded this disparity and unlawfully deprived this population of students of equal access to the free appropriate public education to which they are entitled.  

In light of Governor Hochul’s recent announcement of a Multi-Agency Collaboration to Raise School-Age Youth Mental Health Awareness, the special education advocates that have authored this report call on the DOE and the New York State Education Department (NYSED) to take immediate steps to better meet the needs of students classified with ED, and to provide school personnel with necessary supports.  Moreover, the report’s authors urge the DOE and NYSED to take advantage of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ recent announcement of $74.4 million in new funding to address behavioral health, including in children, and to utilize these funds to address the findings of the report and provide critical resources to improve mental health outcomes for children with ED.

The DOE and NYSED have also failed to track and disaggregate data necessary to understand this issue and the scope of the problem, and have failed to publish such data in a meaningful form that is usable by parents, schools, service providers, policymakers, and advocates.  In the absence of such essential data from the DOE and NYSED, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), , along with leading New York City law firms Stroock & Stroock & Lavan and Kasowitz Benson Torres, have published today’s report illustrating the systemic failures of the DOE and the City, as well as NYSED, to support students with ED appropriately. 

The report, which is supported by extensive empirical evidence, illustrates that the failures of the DOE, New York City, and NYSED have caused many students with ED to be illegally segregated in overly restrictive settings, deprived of a reasonable opportunity to make meaningful educational progress, inappropriately disciplined, and isolated from their general education peers. The report proposes a framework for the DOE to develop evidence-based systems and protocols tailored to meet the needs of students with ED and to give teachers, service providers, and other school personnel the necessary tools to support students with ED, as required by law. 

In March 2023, New York City published “A Mental Health Plan for NYC” that proposed a plan to combat the City’s mental health crisis and alleviate emotional suffering for New Yorkers with urgent needs, including children.  As described in the report, the City cannot achieve its goals – as set forth in its Mental Health Plan – of “build[ing] a healthier New York City for working families and those most in need of care” when the City, DOE, and NYSED persistently fail to support the needs of our most vulnerable children. 

“…Black and Latino students are disproportionally classified…”

“Our years of experience with clients and the data highlighted in this report clearly shows that Black and Latino students are disproportionally classified with Emotional Disability, and that they are more likely to be placed in restrictive settings. It’s outrageous that despite knowing what the data says, the DOE is failing to reform a system that disproportionately harms Black and Latino students,” said Paola Martinez-Boone, Senior Advocate & Special Education Coordinator at NYLPI. “Inclusive education is not a privilege; it is a right!” 

“Students classified with Emotional Disability in NYC are perennially deprived of equal educational opportunity by the DOE, and the consequences have been devastating.  The families of these students, the special education advocacy community, and the DOE itself have long been aware of this crisis.  Yet the DOE and NYSED have done little to address it,” said Kerry Cooperman, former Special Counsel & Director of Pro Bono at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan.  “We hope this report will inspire action.  The thousands of students with ED across NYC, and the hardworking teachers and service providers who support them, are entitled to, and deserve, better from, the DOE.”  

“…students of color … are being illegally deprived of equal and meaningful access…”

“New York City students classified as having an Emotional Disability are disproportionately students of color from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who are being illegally deprived of equal and meaningful access to appropriate educational opportunities and supports,” said David J. Abrams, partner and chair of the Pro Bono Committee at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP.   “This report is a key step in helping the DOE understand the severity of this important problem and take corrective measures.”


For nearly 50 years, NYLPI has been a leading civil rights and legal services advocate for New Yorkers marginalized by race, poverty, disability, and immigration status. Through its community lawyering model, NYLPI bridges the gap between traditional civil legal services and civil rights, building strength and capacity for both individual solutions and long-term impact, via litigation, organizing, and policy campaigns.  The advocacy of NYLPI’s Disability Justice Program spans educational rights, community integration, criminal justice, equal access to programs and services, and accessible housing.  NYLPI expends significant resources in representing low-income parents and their children with disabilities to ensure the children receive the free, appropriate public education guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  NYLPI’s major special education successes include mandating door-to-door transportation, recognition of the right to Applied Behavior Analysis services, and supporting the rights of students with disabilities in charter schools. For more information about NYLPI and its Disability Justice Program, please visit

Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP

Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP is a leading national law firm with a core focus on commercial litigation, complemented by strong bankruptcy/restructuring and real estate transactional practices.  Kasowitz is known for its creative, aggressive litigators and willingness to take on tough cases.  The firm has extensive trial experience and is always trial-ready, representing both plaintiffs and defendants in every area of litigation.  Kasowitz is committed to pursuing aggressive and innovative approaches to its clients’ most challenging legal matters.  Kasowitz maintains a robust and diverse pro bono practice, which includes significant experience in individual disability rights matters, as well as class actions involving, among other issues, the right of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to live in community-based residences, and accessibility in housing, public transportation, medical facilities and health care.  In addition, Kasowitz attorneys have successfully litigated numerous special education matters on behalf of parents to ensure that their children receive the special education services mandated by federal and state law.  Headquartered in New York City, the firm also has offices in Atlanta, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, Newark, San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Washington, DC.  For more information, please visit

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