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Sunday, July 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

D.C. Special Education Fails to Measure Up

WASHINGTON (CN) - The District of Columbia failed to provide disabled preschool children with required special education, a federal judge ruled.

"This case concerns the District of Columbia's obligations, under both federal and local law, to provide special education to some of our most vulnerable citizens at a very early and critical stage in their lives," Chief U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth wrote, taking the district to task for routinely putting up bad numbers for identifying special needs kids and giving them a free and public education. "In the first few years of a child's life, there exists a narrow window of opportunity in which special education, tailored to a child's particular needs, can work a miracle."

Persistent turnover at the highest levels of leadership within the D.C. school system have led to more statutory violations of the law, but Lamberth said the district "should be given another chance to bring themselves into compliance before more intrusive court involvement."

Lamberth issued a structural injunction that will force the beleaguered school system into compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

"Defendants shall ensure that at least 8.5 percent of children between the ages of three and five years old ... who reside in or are wards of the District of Columbia, are enrolled in special education and related services," the Nov. 16 decision states.

Until that number is achieved, the district must substantially increase the number of referrals and enrollment of preschool children for special education.

The district should also provide a timely initial evaluation and an eligibility determination for 95 percent of preschool kids referred to special-education programs. And it must offer parents printed materials about the special education and related services available, and set up a central command that will work to ensure that special needs are met.

Identifying kids in need of services is a growing problem that Wednesday's injunction hopes to address. Experts say the problem stems from the many different risk factors affecting preschoolers, like poverty, HIV/AIDS and poor housing. The court noted that 12 percent of preschoolers qualify for special education because of developmental or physical disabilities, but just 85 to 90 percent of those kids are actually found eligible.

"Defendants' persistent failure to live up to their statutory obligations, a failure that works a severe and lasting harm on one of society's most vulnerable populations - disabled preschool children - is deeply troubling to this court," Lamberth wrote. "Since defendants have demonstrated their historic inability to keep their promises to the district's disabled preschool children, this court hereby makes it crystal clear that failing to abide by the court's order will earn defendants far more significant court involvement and oversight than is ordered this day."

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