LOS ANGELES (CN) – Students detained at Los Angeles County jails will be guaranteed access to special education services under the terms of a settlement approved Friday by a federal judge.
The settlement, approved by U.S District Judge Dolly Gee at a hearing in federal court in Los Angeles, requires the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to provide special education to eligible students who are detained, or who will be detained, at county jails.
Detained students with disabilities who are segregated into higher security units will also be provided with special education, which had previously been denied by jail staff out of security concerns, the settlement said.
Maronel Barajas with Disability Rights Legal Center, which filed a class action complaint on behalf of plaintiff Michael Garcia in 2009, said in an interview that detained students had previously been denied access to advocates when they were denied special education.
Under the settlement, students will have access to advocates and have the opportunity to challenge their denials at a hearing.
As part of the agreement, the county must ensure that there is enough physical space in jails for students’ learning and mandates that jail staff is trained in the rights of students with disabilities.
The County of Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Office of Education, Los Angeles Unified School District, California Department of Education, and Hacienda La Puente Unified School District were also named defendants in the lawsuit.
An attorney for the defendants did not respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.
Garcia, who has a learning and speech disability, had been enrolled in special-education classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District since second grade.
He continued the classes after he became incarcerated at a juvenile facility but stopped after being transferred to a county jail when he turned 18.
Garcia was forced to navigate a general education curriculum instead.
The class action lawsuit, filed by the Center and the law firm Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, claimed that the failure to provide special education to eligible students in county jails violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other federal laws.
After filing his claim, the California’s Office of Administrative Hearings ordered the district to provide Garcia with classes.
After a federal judge upheld the agency’s order, the school district appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which in 2012 asked the state’s high court to weigh in, citing the decision’s likely “significant fiscal impact on local educational agencies throughout the state of California.”
In a Jan. 2014 opinion, a Ninth Circuit panel affirmed a California Supreme Court ruling that California school districts must pay the special education bills of qualified adult students who are incarcerated in county jails.
Anna Rivera, an attorney with the Disability Legal Rights Center, said in an interview that the Supreme Court ruling means the special education guarantee now extends to students detained in county jails across California.
Initially, the parties named in the lawsuit shirked responsibility for providing education to detained students, Rivera said.
An initial settlement approved in 2017 resulted in the county contracting with charter schools – including John Muir, New Opportunities and Five Keys – to provide both general and special education services to detainees.
The county also set up a tracking system to ensure students transferred between facilities continued to receive special education.
Student tracking and a monitoring period for the settlement are part of the many layers of accountability woven into the settlement, Barajas said.
“Now that the settlement has been approved, the next chapter is to ensure that all services are delivered,” Barajas said. “There shouldn’t be any throwaway kids.”