A landmark court settlement that requires the state to better monitor and enforce laws requiring the "least restrictive environment" for special-education students is starting to filter down into scores of school districts across New Jersey.

The state Department of Education this spring finished up its first meetings with 76 districts affected by the agreement reached this winter.

The agreement applies to districts where rates of special-needs students in separate settings far exceed the state's averages or show wide gaps between different categories of children.

The affected districts range from large urban districts like Newark and Jersey City to suburban ones such as Montclair, Hillsborough and Randolph. The list of districts is included in the settlement agreement.

In regional sessions held across the state and ending this week, the state's special education director, Peggy McDonald, explained the new requirements to representatives of the affected districts.

The first major step will be needs assessments to be conducted in each district in the coming months, with results due to the state in October. That will be followed by heightened monitoring over the following two years, as well as specific measures required of districts. The consent agreement runs through 2019.

The court-ordered stakeholder group that will monitor progress in implementing the settlement has yet to meet.

The state's full presentation that laid out the precise timelines over the next five years was posted last week.

"It's showing that the state is doing what it needs to be doing at this point," said Diana Autin, co-executive director of State Parent Advocacy Network, one of the groups that were plaintiffs in the court challenge.

Autin said it is still very early in the process, and the needs assessments will be a critical step. But she said state officials, including McDonald, have been supportive in meetings with parents and advocates.

"We are very pleased in the positive way (McDonald) has been speaking to parents about this," Autin said. "The state is planning to move forward on this."

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