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D.C. Federal Court Rules District Providing Unlawfully Inadequate Education to Incarcerated Youth with Disabilities, Grants Preliminary Injunction

by Matt Clarke

On June 16, 2021, a federal court in the District of Columbia (D.C.) provisionally certified a class of disabled youth incarcerated in D.C. jails who were not being provided with the minimal amount of special education and related services required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400-1482, and issued a preliminary injunction requiring D.C. to provide them all the special education and related services mandated by their Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) through counselor- or ­teacher-led group classes or one-on-one in person or videoconference sessions.

The D.C. jail prisoners enrolled in the Inspiring Youth Program (IYP) filed a federal class-action civil rights lawsuit pursuant to the IDEA and other federal laws alleging they and about 60 other IYP students were being denied the free and appropriate public education (FAPE) mandated by the IDEA.

The IEP is the primary tool for implementing the IDEA. To create an IEP, the disabilities and educational and support needs of an individual are assessed and a plan created to provide a FAPE. For instance, Charles H. has a specific learning disability and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that inhibits his progress in math and English. His IEP mandates 20 hours of specialized instruction per week in addition to the general education classroom instruction as well as three hours of behavioral support services and a half-hour of speech language pathology intervention per month. Israel F.’s IEP mandates 26 hours of special instruction weekly and two hours of behavioral support services monthly due to his emotional disturbance disability. Malik Z. has ADHD and an IEP that mandates ten hours of specialized instruction weekly and two hours of behavioral support services a month.

The defendants are the entities responsible for plaintiffs’ education: D.C. Public Schools, the local education agency which is responsible for providing education to IYP youth; Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the state educational agency; and D.C., which is considered a “state” for within the meaning of the IDEA.

The plaintiffs alleged that, for over a year starting in March 2020, they were confined to their cells 23 hours a day and only received printed work packets, sporadically dropped off at their cells or delivered via tablet, to further their education. The packets were few—Charles F. received only five in 33 weeks—and contained no instructions on how to complete the work. As a result, only two IYP students turned anything in. There was no instruction either in-person or via videoconferencing. There was no meaningful written feedback on the materials that were turned in and no explanation of difficult assignments. In May 2021, some in-person instruction and support services resumed, but far less than called for in the plaintiffs’ IEPs.

Although defendants admitted most of the alleged facts, they claimed to be doing as best as they could, given the pandemic.

The court held that plaintiffs had demonstrated they were likely to succeed on their IDEA claims. It held the pandemic did not excuse defendants’ failure to even begin the process of installing infrastructure to permit virtual instruction until mid-2021. The failure to provide a FAPE was an irreparable injury justifying the preliminary injunction ordering defendants to provide persons with an IEP incarcerated in the D.C. jails all of the services mandated by their IEPs. See: Charles H. v. District of Columbia,2021 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 132383. 

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Related legal case

Charles H. v. District of Columbia