D.C. Appeals Court Ruling on Preschool Special Education
Schools Have Difficulty Complying with Federal Law on Disabled Children
The District of Columbia government is appealing a federal court ruling that would require the public schools to provide greater special education services to pre-kindergarten disabled children.
The issue has been divisive for local school districts nationwide as they try to comply with a law that requires them to provide services to small children who are not even enrolled in their academic programs, according to a report by The Legal Forum (www.legal-forum.net).
The U.S. District Court decision would require the city to identify more children between 3 years old and 5 years old who need special education and to evaluate how the schools could serve them.
The ruling was based on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires public schools to offer special education to preschool-age children with social, learning or physical disabilities.
Three-to-five year olds are not required to be enrolled in school, which means schools sometimes experience difficulty locating special needs children. Nevertheless, the federal law makes the identification process known as Child Find a responsibility for states and the District of Columbia.
Children enrolled in the Child Find program are supposed to have an individualized education program prepared for them by the time they enter kindergarten. The law requires each disabled child to be evaluated within 120 days of being identified.
City officials reported to the court that they provided special education to 6.2 percent of the District’s 3-to-5 year olds in the 2014-2015 school year. The court required the city to provide special education services to 8.5 percent of D.C.’s 3-to-5 year olds.
The District’s lack of effective Child Find and transition policies is particularly troubling in light of the intense scrutiny and seemingly constant admonishment it has received over the last decade, U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth wrote in his recent opinion.
The lawsuit, D.L. v. District of Columbia, has shifted between trial and appeals courts several times since it was filed in 2005. The rulings, including the one last month, usually have favored families and found the D.C. public schools do not comply with federal law.
Expert witnesses for the District testified that it faces more obstacles than most states in finding and evaluating preschool disabled children because of a high poverty and teen pregnancy rate. The school system’s compliance efforts so far have included hiring a developmental pediatrician to identify and evaluate children at a diagnostic center.
The District has come a long way since 2005 when this lawsuit was initiated, but it has not come far enough, Lamberth wrote. Indeed, while its progress has been in some ways impressive, the District started at such a low base that the advances it has made are insufficient to bring it into compliance with its legal obligations.
The judge threatened greater court oversight if the District does not comply with his order soon.