Disability Discrimination in Schools

Central Florida Education Lawyers

In the 2019-2020 school year, there were 7.3 million students with disabilities receiving services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), or an average of 14% of public school students nationwide. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this number dipped to 7.2 million, before increasing again to 7.3 million in the 2021-22 school year. It was the first time in over a decade that there was a decrease in students receiving services.

Even though total public-school attendance dropped by 3% from fall 2019 to fall 2020 and stayed about the same by fall 2021, how does that account for the 100,000 students who did not receive IDEA services in the 2020-21 school year—especially given the immediate rebound to 7.3 million students served the following year? How many children fell through the cracks during virtual learning? How did that impact their progression and education? Is your child being neglected by their school?

If you are the parent, guardian, friend, or loved one of a child with disabilities, read on to learn more about what education rights they are entitled to, what violations of those rights may look like, and what Kevin Ross-Andino and his team at éclat Law are doing to help.

Understanding the Law

Education laws and concepts can often be intricate and perplexing, however, you must have a firm grasp on your rights and those of your child to ensure their protection. Here are some essential terms and topics to familiarize yourself with:

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is an American civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in programs receiving federal assistance. Under this act, Section 504 guarantees equal access to people with disabilities for programs and activities that receive public funding. Because public schools receive federal funding, they are required to comply with Section 504.

A crucial mandate under this law requires schools to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students with eligible disabilities qualifying under Section 504. Eligibility is determined by the presence of a physical or mental impairment that significantly limits one or more major life activities, including but not limited to caring for oneself, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, working, and learning. Schools must accommodate these students by making necessary modifications and providing auxiliary aids to facilitate their learning. These adaptations could range from extended test-taking time, preferential seating, and note-taking assistance to offering sign language interpreters and audio textbooks. Extracurricular activities, such as sports and after-school programs, must also ensure accessibility and non-discrimination.

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act

Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a broad civil rights law that extends beyond the scope of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. While both legislations prohibit discrimination against individuals with disabilities, Title II applies to all state and local government entities, regardless of whether they receive federal funding or not. In the context of education, Title II expands upon Section 504 by ensuring that public and private students with disabilities have equal access to all services, programs, and activities—it requires public schools, higher education institutions, and other state and local education agencies to provide appropriate academic adjustments and auxiliary aids and services to ensure non-discriminatory, equal access to education. Title II also obligates these entities to make their communications with individuals with disabilities as effective as communications with others.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a cornerstone of educational rights for children with disabilities in the United States. Enacted in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, and renamed IDEA in 1990, this federal law ensures that all children with disabilities have access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment possible.

The law’s provisions are broken down into three broad categories: Identification, Placement, and Funding. Through these mandates, IDEA identifies students with disabilities, ensures their placement in educationally appropriate settings, and provides ample funding to meet their specialized educational needs.

The IDEA’s overarching aim is to ensure that children with disabilities can fully participate in society and improve their educational outcomes. Since the law’s inception, educational access has been expanded drastically, with the number of children with disabilities in education rising from 1.8 million in 1975 to 7.5 million in 2020-21. Currently, 66% of these students spend 80% or more of their day in general education classrooms, demonstrating the law’s success in promoting inclusion.

What Is Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)?

The Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) mandate, entrenched in Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), seeks to provide equitable education to individuals with disabilities. It requires schools and programs receiving federal funding to offer quality education, designed to meet each student’s individual needs, at no cost to students or their families.

FAPE encompasses not only classroom instruction but also non-academic services, extracurricular activities, and support services. These are all delivered within the least restrictive environment (LRE), which ensures students with disabilities can participate to their fullest potential alongside their peers without disabilities, receiving any necessary specialized instruction and support.

Furthermore, FAPE applies to public schools or any institution receiving federal funding, and the government is obligated to cover costs such as tuition, room & board, and medical services in private institutions if necessary. It also specifies that schools must establish due process procedures, allowing parents and guardians to challenge decisions that they consider detrimental to their child’s education. Notably, while FAPE sets a legal obligation, it doesn’t guarantee preferential treatment or the best conceivable services, often moderated by financial considerations.

Finally, the IDEA enshrines the standards for FAPE, requiring it to be provided at public expense, meet state educational agency’s standards, include appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary school education, and be in alignment with an Individualized Education Program (IEP).

The Importance and Role of Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)

Individualized Education Plans/Programs (IEPs) are pivotal in facilitating the educational journey of students with disabilities through K-12 grade levels. These legal documents are meticulously crafted by a team comprising teachers, school administrators, and parents, ensuring each child’s unique needs are met. The eligibility for an IEP is determined by the severity of the student’s disability and the necessity for special education services.

An IEP serves as a roadmap for the student’s educational journey, outlining their current performance levels, strengths, needs, and annual goals. It also details the specialized services the student is entitled to receive. The inclusion of measurable annual goals in each area of need allows for clear tracking of the student’s progress.

Additionally, the IEP spells out the impact of the disability on the student’s learning and participation in school, providing valuable insights for educators and parents alike. This level of detail facilitates the development of targeted strategies and resources to support the student’s learning process.

The document is not static; it undergoes regular revisions—at least annually, or more often if required—to keep up with the student’s evolving needs and circumstances. Proactive engagement on the part of parents and students in staying informed about changes in education, technology, and therapy programs can significantly enhance the effectiveness of an IEP.

While IEPs cease to apply once a student enters college, they continue to play an important role. They can provide indispensable guidance on the necessary support and accommodations for the student, easing their transition into higher education. Hence, an IEP is not just a plan; it is a powerful tool, shaping a student’s academic journey and paving the way for their future success.

Common Violations of Education Rights

Understanding the legal rights and protections that safeguard the education of students with disabilities is critical to advocating for their needs. However, despite the robust legal framework provided by IDEA and FAPE, infringements do still occur. Some common examples of FAPE violations are discussed below.

Failure to Provide Accommodations

In some instances, schools fail to implement the accommodations agreed upon in a student’s IEP or 504 Plan. A case that has garnered public attention is that of the Parnes family, who are suing the Orange County School Board for the district’s failure to provide their daughter with reasonable accommodations while virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The school’s negligence resulted in the regression of Parnes’s learning capability, causing substantial emotional distress and impeding her academic progress.

Outdated or Lapsed IEPs

Another potential violation is the failure to regularly review and update a student’s IEP. To effectively address each student’s unique and evolving educational needs, this legal document should be reviewed at least once a year in a formal and collaborative IEP meeting. Additionally, there should be flexibility to conduct more frequent reviews as necessary. If the school is consistently delaying or prolonging these meetings, it indicates a failure to adequately address your child’s needs.

Obstruction of Parental Involvement

Parents play a vital role in their child’s education, and IDEA emphasizes the importance of parental involvement throughout the process. However, some schools may attempt to limit or obstruct parents’ participation in IEP meetings or decision-making processes. This can ultimately result in a violation of FAPE. For example, if a school pressures parents to sign an IEP without fully understanding its contents or withholds information regarding the student’s education, it may constitute a violation of parental rights.

Remediation: Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools

The Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools case is a landmark Supreme Court ruling that reshaped how students with disabilities can seek relief in school disputes. The case involved Miguel Luna Perez, a deaf student who attended Sturgis Public School District from ages 9 to 20. Perez and his parents claimed the school district failed their duties under IDEA and other laws, assigning unqualified aides, misrepresenting Perez’s educational progress, and eventually informing him that he would not receive a diploma.

The family first filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Education, leading to a settlement providing future relief, like continuing his education at the Michigan School for the Deaf.

Then, Perez sued the school district under the ADA to seek compensatory damages for past educational failures because IDEA does not provide monetary relief. The district court dismissed the suit on grounds that IDEA’s administrative procedures must first be exhausted, which Perez had not done as he opted to settle out of court instead. This ruling was affirmed by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

However, the Supreme Court ultimately overturned the decision and sent the case back to the lower courts for further proceedings, allowing Perez to continue with his ADA lawsuit against Sturgis. Even though he did not meet IDEA’s exhaustion prerequisites, the compensatory damages Perez sought could not be provided by IDEA.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools case is a significant milestone in the fight for disability rights in education. It highlights that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Americans with Disabilities Act can work together, addressing different violations and providing different solutions. This ruling expands the opportunities for students with disabilities to seek compensation for past educational shortcomings through the ADA, even if IDEA’s administrative requirements haven’t been fully met. It has important implications for students and their families, allowing them to pursue both future educational adjustments and financial remedies, potentially fostering a more equitable education system.

Standing Strong with éclat Law: Advocating for Educational Justice

With an unparalleled commitment to justice and an unwavering dedication to advocating for the rights of individuals, Kevin Ross-Andino stands as one of few attorneys in the state specializing in this unique area of practice. It’s a challenging field, requiring us to take on formidable opponents that are often shielded by layers of legal protection. At éclat Law, however, we are undaunted and remain steadfast in our mission to provide our clients with the vigorous representation they deserve.

Our most publicized education law case involves the Parnes family, whose daughter with multiple learning disabilities did not receive adequate support from her school district throughout the shift to virtual learning during COVID-19. After years of struggling to advocate for her rights, the Parneses eventually felt compelled to put their daughter into a private school. Now, Mr. Ross is fighting tirelessly for them to gain restitution.

éclat Law has since taken on numerous other cases in education law, further solidifying our standing as a leading authority in the field. Our team is uniquely positioned to advocate for the rights of individuals with disabilities, equipped with the knowledge, experience, and tenacity to tackle even the most challenging cases.

Protect Your Child from Disability Discrimination — Contact Us Today for a Free Consultation

If you or a loved one has experienced similar challenges in securing an appropriate education due to a disability, we encourage you to reach out for a consultation. At éclat Law, we are deeply committed to advocating for the rights of students with disabilities. We believe that every individual deserves an equal opportunity to learn and thrive in an educational setting that respects and supports their unique needs. Contact us at 407-636-7004 or fill out our case evaluation form online. No matter the complexity of your case, our experienced and compassionate team is prepared to fight for the justice you deserve.