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Adult Eligible for Special-Ed. Services, Court Finds

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States and school districts may be forced to pay for the education of disabled adults whose needs were not met while they were children, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit has ruled.

In a suit against state and local education officials in Massachusetts, Karl Pihl and his mother, Diane, argue that the young man, now 27, is entitled to compensatory education to make up for services he was denied from 1985 to 1987.

Mr. Pihl is retarded and emotionally disturbed, and suffers from severe hearing loss and a speech deficiency. His current residential program is paid for by the state department of mental retardation.

A federal district court had dismissed the case earlier this year, because Mr. Pihl is beyond the age of entitlement for educational services and his individualized educational plan had expired.

But a three-judge appellate panel held last month that Mr. Pihl's age did not render his claim moot. It sent the case, Karl Pihl v. Massachusetts Department of Education, back to the lower court.

The appeals court ruled that Mr. Pihl would be eligible for compensatory education if he can prove the public schools failed to provide him an appropriate education while he was under age 22, the state's legal limit for special education.

What is 'Appropriate?'

"In order to give meaning to a disabled student's right to an education between the ages of 3 and 21, compensatory education must be available beyond a student's 21st birthday,'' Senior Circuit Judge Frank M. Coffin said in the opinion.

"Otherwise, school districts simply could stop providing required services to older teenagers, relying on the [Individuals with Disabilities Education] Act's time-consuming review process to protect them from further obligations,'' he wrote.

In 1985, dissatisfied with the services her son was receiving, Ms. Pihl removed Karl from the private day program he had been placed in by state officials. She paid for aides to care for him at home, while the Lowell school district looked for another option. She filed the complaint in 1986.

The district found a residential program in Texas that the state's Board of Special-Education Appeals approved. But Ms. Pihl argued that it was not appropriate and did not represent a "least restrictive environment,'' noting its distant location and a lack of expertise in treating the deaf.

Regina Williams Tate, a lawyer representing the city of Lowell in the case, said the district court must decide whether the proposed placement was appropriate and, if not, whether Ms. Pihl had proposed an appropriate alternative.

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