Parents, school administrators, and education attorneys are waiting to see if the United States Supreme Court will review the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Compton Unified Sch. Dist. v. Addison, 598 F.3d 1181 (9th Cir. 2010). That decision significantly increased a School District’s obligation to identify students eligible for special education, and greatly expanded parents’ rights to a due process hearing to determine if the District had failed to discharge its duty.
Although handicapping the Supreme Court is crystal ball gazing, at best, the Court may well not only hear the case but also reverse the Court of Appeals. Until the appellate dust settles, this article will give you the new legal landscape and inform students and parents of their expanded rights.
Requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) conditions federal funding to states on their adopting policies and procedures ensuring that “all children with disabilities . . . who are in need of special education services are identified, located, and evaluated.” This provision is known as the “child find” requirement. The IDEA further requires School Districts to provide written notice to a child’s parents whenever it “proposes to initiate or change” or “refuses to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child . . . .”
The student involved in the case, Starvenia Addison, received horrific and indefensible treatment at the hands of the Compton, California School District. Her school counselor did not consider it atypical for Addison, a ninth-grader, to perform at a fourth-grade level. In the fall of her tenth-grade year, Addison failed every academic subject. The counselor considered these grades to be a “major red flag.” Teachers reported Addison’s work as “gibberish and incomprehensible.”
A third-party mental health counselor recommended that the District assess Addison for learning disabilities. Despite the recommendation, the District did not refer Addison for an educational assessment and instead promoted her to eleventh grade.
The Courts’ Decisions
Addison brought an administrative claim under IDEA seeking compensatory educational services for the District’s failure to identify her needs and provide a free appropriate public education. An administrative law judge found for Addison and the U.S. District Court subsequently agreed. An appeal followed to the Court of Appeals.
The Ninth Circuit, obviously (and understandably) deeply offended by the District’s actions, phrased the District’s arguments in such pejorative terms that it was obvious that it, too, was going to find in Addison’s favor. For example, the Court said: “the School District seeks to cast its deliberate indifference as something other than a ‘refusal.'” Two Judges of the three-judge panel affirmed the District Court in perfunctory fashion with only casual references to broad legal generalizations.
The remaining Appellate Judge, however, filed a dissenting opinion that dwarfs the majority opinion in terms of depth, breadth, and legal analysis. He, too, was troubled by the distressing facts, but essentially found that under the IDEA and state law, a due process hearing may be held only where the District purposefully acts, or refuses to act, as opposed to where the complained-of conduct is best described as negligent.
Actually, the complained-of conduct could also be fairly described as gross negligence or reckless indifference but the dissenting Judge chose not to go there, perhaps fearing that it would lead him to a different result. The otherwise thorough and well-reasoned dissent offers the Supreme Court a road map to overturning the decision of the Court of Appeals.
Impact of the Addison Case
For the time being, however, the decision of the Ninth Circuit in Addison is binding on the Federal Courts in the nine most western states of the United States, and may be considered persuasive, and therefore followed, by other Courts throughout the nation. In petitioning the Supreme Court to take up the case, the District cites liberally to the dissenting opinion and laments the majority’s creation of a claim for educational malpractice where none has previously existed.
Finally, because there are 2200 school districts and over one million special education students served within the geographical boundaries of the Ninth Circuit, the Supreme Court may consider the Addison case sufficiently impactful to warrant review.
Until Addison is affirmed, reversed, or otherwise clarified, special needs students and their parents have additional ammunition with which to press their School District for an educational evaluation, an IEP, a due process hearing, and potentially the bringing of an action in U.S. District Court.
If you have any questions regarding your child’s education, or any education law matter, contact Joseph Maya at 203-221-3100 or by email at JMaya@MayaLaw.com.