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 minority students 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.
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 program despite her daughter’s objections to receiving services.
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.
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.
A version of this article appeared in the September 18, 2013 edition of Education Week as No Protections for Students Improperly Placed in Special Ed.