Education

No IDEA Protections for Students Misplaced in Special Education, Court Rules

By Mark Walsh — September 11, 2013 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Children mistakenly identified by their schools as having disabilities may not bring claims under the main federal special education law, despite a recognition by Congress of the problem of overrepresentation of minorities in special education, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, said that a Pennsylvania family made “emotionally compelling” arguments about the problem of misidentification of minority children for special education.

But there is no indication that the definition of “child with a disability” in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act “includes children who are mistakenly identified as disabled, but who are, in fact, not disabled,” the court panel said in a unanimous opinion.

“Therefore, under the act’s plain language, it is clear that the IDEA creates a cause of action only for individuals with disabilities,” the court added.

The ruling came in a case brought by an African-American student and her mother in the Lower Merion, Pa., school district. The student, identified as S.H., and her mother had numerous interactions with school officials over the child’s school progress. By 5th grade, S.H. was placed in special education for a perceived learning disability. Her mother went along with an Individualized Education Plan despite her daughter’s objections to receiving services.

By the time S.H. reached high school, her mother began to question whether she still belonged in special education, court papers say. The student tested at grade level and had even made the Honor Roll in middle schools. The family’s suit alleged that a school district psychologist evaded the mother’s request to see a copy of an evaluation document by claiming that it had been destroyed.

An independent evaluation administered when S.H. was in 10th grade concluded that the student’s designation as learning disabled was, and always had been, erroneous. S.H. was not in special education for her last two years of high school.

The family sued the school district seeking compensation under the IDEA, as well as claims of intentional discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The suit alleged that S.H.'s mistaken placement in special education had kept her from taking certain electives in middle school and high school and had damaged her self-confidence and academic progress. The suit sought $127,000 in damages, which would go for tutoring, psychotherapy, and two years of college tuition.

A federal district court dismissed the family’s IDEA claim and granted summary judgment to the school district on the other claims.

In its Sept. 5 decision in S.H. v. Lower Merion School District, the 3rd Circuit court panel affirmed, holding that the IDEA allowed claims to be brought only on behalf of students with disabilities.

The family pointed to the IDEA’s legislative history, including congressional findings in more recent reauthorizations of the statute that expressed concerns about misidentification of minority students for special education.

For example, the federal law’s “findings” section says: “More minority children continue to be served in special education than would be expected from the percentage of minority students in the general school population. African-American children are identified as having intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbance at rates greater than their white counterparts.”

The family argued that such language suggests that after a child has been misidentified for special education, that child should enjoy the same protections of the IDEA hearing process and other remedies.

But the 3rd Circuit court said the IDEA’s plain statutory language answered the question of whether the law applied to students without disabilities, so there was no need to consult legislative history. In any event, the legislative history sought only to draw attention to the problem of overidentification of minority students for special education, but did not support the notion that Congress wanted to create a legal cause of action for such students, the court said.

The court also held that the family did not face intentional discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act or the ADA. The court rejected the family’s arguments that S.H.'s good grades and pattern of improved test scores should have put the district on notice earlier that she did not belong in special education. First, much of the testing data was inconclusive, the court said.

“Additionally, [the family] offered no evidence that high test scores are an indication that a student likely does not have a learning disability, nor [has it] offered evidence that children in special education usually do not receive good grades.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Data Webinar
Education Insights with Actionable Data to Create More Personalized Engagement
The world has changed during this time of pandemic learning, and there is a new challenge faced in education regarding how we effectively utilize the data now available to educators and leaders. In this session
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Accelerate Learning with Project-Based Learning
Earlier this year, the George Lucas Educational Foundation released four new studies highlighting how project-based learning (PBL) helps accelerate student learning—across age groups, multiple disciplines, and different socio-economic statuses. With this year’s emphasis on unfinished
Content provided by SmartLab Learning
School & District Management Live Online Discussion Principal Overload: How to Manage Anxiety, Stress, and Tough Decisions
According to recent surveys, more than 40 percent of principals are considering leaving their jobs. With the pandemic, running a school building has become even more complicated, and principals' workloads continue to grow. If we

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education California Makes Ethnic Studies a High School Requirement
California is among the first in the nation to require students to take a course in ethnic studies to get a diploma starting in 2029-30.
4 min read
FILE - In this Jan. 22, 2020, file photo, Democratic Assembly members, from left, James Ramos, Chris Holden Jose Medina, and Rudy Salas, Jr., right, huddle during an Assembly session in Sacramento, Calif. Medina's bill to make ethnic studies a high school requirement was signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday, Oct. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)
Education California Requires Free Menstrual Products in Public Schools
The move comes as women’s rights advocates push nationwide for affordable access to pads, tampons, and other items.
1 min read
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Tammy Compton restocks tampons at Compton's Market, in Sacramento, Calif., on June 22, 2016. California public schools and colleges must stock their restrooms with free menstrual products under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, Friday, Oct. 8, 2021.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Education Florida to Dock School District Salaries for Requiring Masks
Florida is set to dock salaries and withhold funding from local school districts that defied Gov. Ron DeSantis' ban on mask mandates.
2 min read
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks, Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021, at the Doral Academy Preparatory School in Doral, Fla.
Wilfredo Lee/AP
Education More Than 120,000 U.S. Kids Had Caregivers Die During Pandemic
The toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans, a new study suggests.
3 min read
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021 file photo, a funeral director arranges flowers on a casket before a service in Tampa, Fla. According to a study published Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, by the medical journal Pediatrics, the number of U.S. children orphaned during the COVID-19 pandemic may be larger than previously estimated, and the toll has been far greater among Black and Hispanic Americans. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara, File)