Court Backs Department in Question Over Authority in Special-Ed. Case

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A Georgia school district challenging the Education Department's authority to investigate certain special-education complaints as civil-rights violations cannot press its case in court until the agency has taken action on such a complaint, a federal appellate court has ruled.

The DeKalb County system in suburban Atlanta has waged a legal battle with the department's office for civil rights since 1986, and the district's federal funding was briefly cut off in April because it had refused to allow the o.c.R. to investigate eight pending complaints concerning the educational placement of handicapped children. The funding was restored after the district agreed to turn over information the office had requested, and the complaints are under investigation. (See Education Week, May 8, 1991.)

In its Aug. 30 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1 Ith Circuit affirmed a district-court decision that the agency was justified in terminating funding because all grant recipients are required to cooperate with such investigations.

But the appellate court refused to rule on the central legal issue raised by the case: the proper relationship between the Education of the Handicapped Act, which entitles disabled children to a "free, appropriate" education, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a civil-rights law that bans discrimination against the disabled in federally funded programs.

Residential Placements

The school district argues that Education Department regulations under Section 504 overreach the statute, that the E.H.A. preempted the earlier law, and that the E.H.A.'s appeal process for parents is the only vehicle through which the educational placement of disabled children can be properly challenged. In particular, the district contends that the civil-rights office overstepped its hounds in requiring residential placement for disabled children under Section 504.

The 11th Circuit said it could not judge whether that requirement was a "reasonable accommodation" under a relevant U.S. Supreme Court ruling without the factual record that would be provided if the O.C.R. were to find a violation and order the district to correct it.

The court also declined to address the broader issue of the relationship between the two laws "in the absence of a fully developed record and application of O.C.R.'S procedures to actual cases of alleged discrimination."

The judges rejected the school district's assertion that the 1984 Supreme Court decision in Smith v. Robinson, which held that parental appeal is limited to the E.H.A. process, proves their case, noting that the Smith ruling did not address limitations on governmental action.

Vol. 11, Issue 03, Page 23

Published in Print: September 18, 1991, as Court Backs Department in Question Over Authority in Special-Ed. Case
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