First Circuit Orders Rhode Island to Provide Adult Special Education

BOSTON (CN) – Rhode Island’s Department of Education must provide school services to individuals with disabilities until they are 22, the First Circuit has ruled.

The decision Monday overturns an earlier ruling from a federal judge who found that the post-high school education services, which Rhode Island provides to adults up to age 22, did not count as “traditional public education” and therefore not bound by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“We disagree with the district court’s narrow interpretation of the term ‘public education,’” U.S. Circuit Judge Kermit Lipez wrote for a three-person panel in Boston. “Accordingly, we vacate the decision of the district court and remand the case for entry of judgment in favor of K.L. and for remedial proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The federal law better known by the abbreviation IDEA requires that states provide a “free appropriate public education” for all students, regardless of whether they have disabilities until they are 21.

Rhode Island requires students to attend public school until they are 18, but if that student has not yet obtained a diploma or a high school equivalency the state will provide the student with adult education services until the day before they turn 22.

While nondisabled students are allowed to receive an additional year of education, disabled students are out of luck.

In 2014, the parents of an anonymous would-be student in Rhode Island sued the state’s Department of Education.

At the time, the student was 20 years old and had yet to complete her high school education, in part because she has Asberger’s syndrome and attention deficit hyperactive disorder, according to the original complaint.

The complaint also sought class certification for what the plaintiffs estimated were about 1,600 students with disabilities throughout the state, by the time discovery was completed in 2015.

“We are very pleased with the decision and look forward to working with the state of Rhode Island and Justice Smith to fashion a remedy for those students affected,” attorney Sonja Deyoe said in an email. “This case touches the lives of many families and will, no doubt, increase the number of students with disabilities who receive a high school diploma.  It will also allow other affected students to receive further education and training which will allow them to improve their lives even if they cannot receive a diploma before they turn 22.”

A spokesman with the Rhode Island Department of Education did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

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