Seventh Circuit OKs Differential Treatment of Disabled Students

CHICAGO (CN) — The Seventh Circuit rebuffed disability advocates on Tuesday and upheld Wisconsin’s school-transfer rules, finding the rules do not discriminate against children with disabilities by limiting their transfer options.

“Differential treatment of special-needs students doesn’t make the program unlawful,” U.S. Circuit Judge Diane Sykes wrote for a three-person panel.

Wisconsin’s open-enrollment law allows students who are unhappy with the schools in their district to apply to a school in another district, which must accept them if that school has the capacity.

But due to the extra services they require, applications from students with learning disabilities are considered separately from those of students without disabilities.

For example, a school might have 50 regular education seats open for transferring students, but only two open seats for special-needs children.

Four disabled students sued Wisconsin in 2014, but a federal judge ruled that the open-enrollment program does not violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

On appeal, plaintiffs’ counsel Brian McGrath with the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty told the Seventh Circuit at oral arguments in April 2018 that “the problem with the open-enrollment law is that it treats students with disabilities differently.”

He said the law affects all disabled students regardless of the nature of their disability.

For example, a student who needs speech therapy but can sit in a regular classroom would be categorized as a disabled student with very limited chances of being accepted to another district’s schools, McGrath said.

The Seventh Circuit disagreed, and upheld Wisconsin’s program Tuesday.

“The program makes decisions based on the actual needs of disabled students, so it complies with federal law,” Sykes wrote.

According to the state, 64 percent of special-needs students are able to transfer schools, which is only 7 percent fewer than regular education students.

“Under the open-enrollment program, nonresident districts cannot turn away applicants merely because they are disabled,” Sykes wrote. “Instead the program allows nonresident districts to realistically assess whether they have the capacity and resources to comply with a transfer student’s IEP [Individual Education Plan]. Because decisions are based on a student’s special needs, the program hinges on ‘the actual attributes of the handicap’ rather than mere ‘stereotypes.’”

U.S. Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett and U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin, sitting by designation from Illinois, filled out the panel.

In exchange for Richardson’s guilty plea to one count of federal funds bribery, four other charges were dismissed. He agreed not to appeal any prison sentence of two years or less, and repay $20,000.

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