School Districts Cannot Deny or be Tardy in Educating Handicapped Children – A Lesson for All Stakeholders.

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By Chaitram Aklu

A decision handed down by the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on March 21, 2023, brings into focus the seriousness of educating handicapped children as provided by the Individual Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 1990.

The case is especially important for handicapped students (and their parents) in schools where these students are being denied or shortchanged in the education they are entitled to. In handing down the decision Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the case (Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 21-887 (2023), “holds consequences not just for Mr. Perez (plaintiff) but for a great many children with disabilities and their parents.”

The case involved now 27 year old Miguel Luna Perez, a deaf student of the Sturgis Public School District in Michigan (who attended school from the age of 9 through 20) had filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education alleging that the school district failed in its duties under the Individual Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA, 1990). The complaint by Perez and his parents alleged that he was assigned aides to translate classroom instruction. But the aides were either unqualified, frequently absent from the classroom for hours, and in one case was attempting to teach herself sign language. Further they alleged, the school had misrepresented his progress and promoted him from grade to grade, making him and his parents believe that he was on track to graduate high school at the same time with his class. But months before graduation the School district informed Perez that he would not graduate or receive a diploma. The District offered to award him a “Certificate of Completion” of High School, otherwise known as an “IEP Diploma”.

After an administrative hearing, the District settled the dispute and “promised to provide Mr. Perez all the forward-looking equitable relief he sought, including additional schooling at the Michigan School for the Deaf.”

However after settling the complaint Mr. Perez filed a lawsuit in federal court under the American with Disabilities Act (ADA 1990) in which he “sought backward-looking relief in the form of compensatory damages.” The District argued that a section of IDEA (1415 (l) “barred Mr. Perez from bringing an ADA claim without first exhausting all of IDEA’s administrative dispute resolutions.” IDEA sets out several “administrative procedures for children, their parents, teachers, and school districts to follow when disputes arise.”

In 1975 Landmark legislation, PL 94-142 designed for the child “to benefit” was enacted. Also known as EACHA (Education for all Handicapped Children Act) it incorporated many provisions of earlier litigation and legislation.

The Act mandated free and appropriate public education by September 1, 1978 for all handicapped children ages 3 -18. And by September 1, 1980 it extended the coverage to benefit all handicapped children 3 – 21. If a School District is unable to provide a free and appropriate public education, the parent of the child can be allowed to seek private education for which the school District must pay.

Children do not have to show potential benefit to qualify for a free and appropriate education. “Handicapped children can’t be excluded from public education on the ground that they are uneducable.” In timothy W v. Rochester, New Hampshire, School District (1989) the United States Court of Appeals concluded “EAHCA did not require that a child prove he or she could benefit from the educational services before participation.” The court ruled that “the Act was intended for all handicapped, and that the most severely handicapped were to be given priority, not excluded.

Since then there have been many amendments and court rulings as disputes arose about interpretation of failure to comply with the law.

For example: In Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District Board of Education v. Rowley (SCOTUS 1982) which involved a deaf student, Justice William Rehnquist who wrote the opinion stated that “Special education means specifically designed instruction, at no cost to parents or guardians, to meet the unique needs of a handicapped child, including classroom instruction, instruction in physical education, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions (including prisons- my addition).

In 1986 more amendments were included via the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act – HCPA. The amendments focused on the particular needs of deaf-blind and multiple-handicapped children, extending the provisions for specialized, intensive professional and allied services, methods and aids that are found to be most effective. HCPA also enables handicapped children, parents, or guardians to receive attorney’s fees if they are successful in litigation against local and state agencies.

The US Court Appeals for the Sixth District in Michigan agreed with Sturgis School District and dismissed Mr. Perez’s suit. He then appealed to the SCOTUS. The appeal was supported by President Biden’s Administration.

The SCOTUS did not address all the issues raised in the suit choosing to address only whether “children with disabilities must exhaust administrative procedures under IDEA before (my emphasis) seeking relief under other federal antidiscrimination statutes, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.”

On March 21, 2023 Justice Gorsuch delivered the unanimous opinion of the Court writing in his 8-page decision: This case presents the question — “whether a suit admittedly premised on the past denial of a free and appropriate education may nonetheless proceed without exhausting IDEA’s administrative processes if the remedy a plaintiff seeks is not one IDEA provides.” The question is whether a plaintiff must exhaust administrative procedures under IDEA that cannot supply what he seeks. – “we answer in the negative,” (My emphasis). “Nothing in the provision prevents him,” Gorsuch added.

The court reversed the Court of Appeals decision and sent the case back for further review based on this SCOTUS decision.

In Timothy v. Rochester (1989) Justice Rehnquest noted: “the EAHCA was unequivocal that public education is to be provided to all handicapped children, unconditionally and without exception. It encompasses a universal right and is not predicated upon any type of guarantees that the child will benefit from the special education and services before he or she is considered eligible to receive such education.”

Although Mr. Perez was awarded his High School Diploma in 2020 this ruling means that his lawsuit for monetary compensation can proceed under the ADA.

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The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.