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Judge holds D.C. in contempt for failing to provide education to older students with disabilities in jail

Education services disrupted during the pandemic continue to leave some students without enough support to learn, judge found

The D.C. jail. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

A federal judge has found the District in contempt of court for failing to provide adequate special education to students with disabilities detained at the D.C. jail.

In the Wednesday order, District Judge Carl J. Nichols required the city to have a “remote-learning system fully operational” by March 15; to submit individualized plans to make up for missed special-education hours over the past five months; and to extend eligibility for all students who may have aged out of the education program since the court first issued an injunction in June 2021.

“Today’s contempt order is a historic victory for the often overlooked high school students incarcerated at the DC Jail,” Tayo Belle, senior staff attorney at the School Justice Project, a nonprofit that advocates for older students with disabilities involved in the courts, said in a statement.

The order came more than 10 months after the School Justice Project, the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, and Terris Pravlik & Millian law firm filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of students with disabilities incarcerated in D.C. during the pandemic, alleging that the city had “effectively abandoned efforts to teach them.” While some services have since improved, the contempt order revealed deep and persistent failures to operate the high school program, which attorneys say is responsible for 30 to 40 students at any given time.

The suit is just part of a firestorm of litigation that has surrounded detention in the District over the past two years. Attorneys have sued over coronavirus conditions at the D.C. jail and the special education of people with disabilities at the city’s youth detention center, and the U.S. Marshals Service wrote a searing letter accusing the jail of “systemic” mistreatment of detainees, including unsanitary living conditions and the punitive denial of food and water.

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Under city law, D.C. is responsible for providing specialized education to people 18 to 22 years old with disabilities while they are detained. That means the high school program inside the D.C. jail — which was run by D.C. Public Schools until Maya Angelou Public Charter School took over the responsibility in October — is supposed to have services such as speech-language pathology to ensure that each person is able to access the curriculum.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said those services halted when the coronavirus landed, and that they had not resumed more than a year later. There was still no regular teaching instruction nor any related services by April 2021, according to court filings. Instead, students at that time were expected to complete work packets on their own time and without ample support, the filings said.

Two months after attorneys filed the class-action suit, Nichols issued a preliminary injunction that required D.C. to provide “full hours of special education and related services” to students with disabilities within 15 days.

More than a semester later, Nichols found that the city had failed to do so.

“While things have improved for the month of January, every student currently enrolled in the Program remains at an inexcusable educational deficit for this school year,” Nichols wrote in his order, “a failure all the more baffling given that the Court entered its Preliminary Injunction months before the school year began.”

In response to the order, D.C. Public Schools said in a statement that “we value and are committed to fostering a learning environment that serves the educational experience of every student, including students who are incarcerated. DCPS is reviewing the order from the court and working with institutional partners to address next steps.”

Nichols said in the order that the government argued that “they are trying to comply, but for various reasons it is difficult to do so.”

Sarah Comeau, director of programs and co-founder at the School Justice Project, said there have been small improvements since Maya Angelou charter school took over the high school program in October. Some students resumed in-person classes and other programming became more regular. But she said there were always some students who did not receive the specialized education and services to which they were entitled.

“The failure of the District to educate these young people and comply with federal law effectively left the entire population of students with disabilities languishing inside this facility,” Comeau said.

Maya Angelou Public Charter School did not respond to a request for comment.

The city has a month to submit plans to rectify that learning loss for each student enrolled at the jail’s high school between Sept. 1, 2021, and Jan. 31, 2022, in addition to putting in place a remote learning system by mid-March. The city also must, per the contempt order, extend program eligibility for all students who would have received special-education services during the period covered by the preliminary injunction.

“The Contempt Order is a clear signal that D.C. must take seriously its obligation to provide special education and related services at the D.C. jail,” Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said in a statement.