Can School Districts Really Ignore Students Who Need Help?

On Disability Scoop this morning, there was an article on school districts and their obligation to identify students with special needs under the “child find” clause of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  But this school district (in Compton, CA) was more worried about being liable for  “educational malpractice” than getting this student help. This case was about a girl who was promoted to 11th grade after testing below the 1st percentile level and who performed at less than a 4th grade level as a 10th grader. Counselors and teachers noted issues, but no one ever suggested she get evaluated.

Yes, budgets are tight; yes, there are many students who need help, but what are we educating our children for, if not to get an education and not just be shunted through school, grade after grade even though there are signs of trouble.

School District’s can’t ignore students who may need Special Ed services and then claim they had no duty to notify the parents. In this case, “[t]he School District asserts that, because it chose to ignore Addison’s disabilities and take no action, it has not affirmatively refused to act. The School District therefore contends that the notice requirement does not apply… We reject this argument.” Thankfully, the 9th Circuit rejected this argument outright. Frankly, I don’t know how that school district made that argument with a straight face – “we ignored it so we have no duty to notify the parents of an issue???” Really? If that were true, school districts would ignore every issue and claim no duty to do anything about it. THE Court went on to say, “[t]he School District’s wilful inaction in the face of numerous “red flags” is more than sufficient to demonstrate its unwillingness and refusal to evaluate Addison.”

There are many reasons the signs may be missed that a child need special ed services – but something seems off, you just can’t put your finger on it. Sometimes their performance (or lack thereof) may be attributed to behavioral issues or to something the child will grow out of. At the end of the day, we all (the parents, the child, the School Districts, and society as a whole) have a vested interest in educating every child. This case was decided on the pleadings, meaning that facts weren’t presented, that means there aren’t a lot of factual details presented.

The few facts that are mentioned in the case directly: “Addison’s mother was reluctant to have the child “looked at,” and School District officials decided not to “push.” Instead, the School District referred Addison to a third-party mental-health counselor. The third-party counselor recommended that the School District assess Addison for learning disabilities. Despite the recommendation, the School District did not refer Addison for an educational assessment, and instead promoted Addison to eleventh grade.

In September 2004, Addison’s mother wrote a letter to the School District explicitly requesting an educational assessment and Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) meeting. The assessment took place on December 8, 2004. The IEP team determined that Addison was eligible for special education services on January 26, 2005.”

There are many lessons to be learned in this case — put requests in writing, find out your rights as parents (read the handbook that the school district hands you), don’t trust that school districts or school administrators know the law,  inform yourself and don’t stop asking questions about how your child is going to be helped, specifically.

What I find most fascinating in this case is that the Supreme Court is requesting the Obama administration to weigh in on the situation. I think the Supreme Court is capable enough to balance public policy needs versus what the law plainly says and requires.

If you have thoughts on this issue, please share them in the comments.

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