The Supreme Court asked the Obama administration early this week for its views on whether a parent may bring a negligence claim against a school district that allegedly failed to identify a student's disabilities. In the case out of California, the 9th circuit recently ruled that there was a broad jurisdictional mandate under IDEA, the federal special education law, and that in the case there was "willful inaction" on the district's part in the face of numerous "red flags" about the student's disabilities.
The case involves a student out of Compton, when the student was in 10th grade, her teachers expressed concerns that her work was "gibberish and incomprehensible" and that she was not passing her classes. The school district referred the girl to an outside counselor and she was referred for an evaluation for possible learning disabilities. In this case, the district did not follow the recommendation, and it promoted the girl to the 11th grade. The mother then formally requested an IEP and that the student be found eligible under LD.
The mother brought a claim under the IDEA. She argued that the school district failed to meet IDEA's "child find" requirement. An administrative law judge largely sided with the family, ordering as much as 150 hours of compensatory tutoring for the girl's lost educational opportunities and failure to make progress.
The district appealed that ruling in district court, and argued that if the court ruled for the family, students with disabilities would be able to bring "educational malpractice" claims against districts. The federal district court ruled for the family and the U.S. Court of appeals also sided with the family. The 9th circuit rejected the school district's argument that the IDEA does not authorize claims where there was no affirmative refusal to act by school staff or administration.
The question of whether a district should be held liable for failing to identify a child’s special needs is an interesting one. In reading some of the comments posted about this topic, many are skewering the parent involved, however the parent's role is not at issue. The issue before the court is whether the district failed in their duty under the federal special education law that REQUIRES them to identify students with disabilities.
The opinion outlines that there are obligations the school must meet both under IDEA and the California law to identify individuals with special needs, it does not, nor should it have been focused on the parent's role. Yes, parents should be involved, but not all parents are college educated individuals with access to an abundance of resources, some are single parents, some got ‘passed through’ themselves or failed to graduate, some work full time and are just trying to get by. The solicitor general's office typically takes several months to respond to the high court's request for its views in a given case, it will be interesting to see the guidance that comes out. Here is Pete Wright's take on the Compton case.