Court Slams D.C. for Failings in Young Special Education

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The District of Columbia faces liability for its failures with regard to preschool children with special needs prior to 2007, a federal judge ruled.
     In a series of summary judgments Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth found that Washington’s actions did not comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) or with D.C. law before 2007 and between 2008 and April 2011.
     The decision comes nearly two years after Lamberth split the class into four subsections: those whom the district did not identify, those it did not evaluate, those whose eligibility it did not determine and those whom it did not help transition to new schools.
     “Based on evidence presented at trial, the court found that the district provided special education services to less than 6% of its total child population, despite statistical projections that the district should identify and serve at least 12%,” that class-certification order said. “Of those disabled children who were identified, the district failed to provide timely evaluations to 25-45% and timely eligibility determinations to 56.75%.”
     Early intervention as mandated by federal law works miracles, offering a success rate of around 80 percent of disabled children who receive special education services, but the class says the city “has denied this miracle to a large number of disabled children,” according to the ruling.
     The class says that D.C. has repeatedly failed to identify kids with special needs, evaluate them or determine their eligibility for special education.
     Lamberth did side with the city as to whether the city violated the Rehabilitation Act after March 22, 2010, and if it failed to adequately evaluate special needs children during the same time period.
     Preserving other claims for trial, Lamberth declined to issue summary judgment on whether the district ever violated the Rehabilitation Act or if it violated IDEA and D.C. law after April 2011.
     He also rejected the district’s challenge of two experts the families have tapped to testify at trial.
     The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act hinges federal funding on a school system “policies and procedures to ensure … that free appropriate public education… is available to disabled children.”
     While the district identified 6 percent of all the children in its jurisdiction as special needs, the total should have been twice that, according to the opinion.
     In addition, the District of Columbia failed to provide a timely evaluation to between 25 percent and 45 percent of the students it did identify. Though it showed improvement over time in transitioning children to new schools, the district still fell short of an acceptable standard, according to the opinion.
     “Thus, the court found that the District’s failure to institute adequate Child Find practices resulted in the denial of a [free appropriate public education] to a substantial number of disabled children and that the District failed to comply with its legal duty to provide a smooth and effective transition to a significant portion of disabled children,” Lamberth wrote .
     The parties will meet again for a status conference on June 30 to try to set a date for the next phase of proceedings.
     Lauren Seffel, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said her team is “pleased with the court’s decision, especially with respect to the district’s liability prior to 2011.”

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