The D.C. government is appealing a federal court ruling that said the city is providing inadequate services to young children with special needs who have yet to enter the school system.
The appeal is the latest turn in a long-running legal battle over whether the District government is complying with federal education laws and doing enough to address disabilities and developmental delays among preschoolers.
If the decision stands, the city will be required to identify and evaluate more children between the ages of 3 and 5 in need of special-education services, according to the U.S. District Court’s May ruling. The District appealed the decision last week.
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, all the states and the District are required to provide services — either privately or in group settings — to preschool-age children with social, learning or physical disabilities.
But because children that young are not required to be enrolled in the school system, the law says it’s the state’s responsibility to identify these children and provide them with the services they need. This identification process is known nationally as “Child Find.”
By the time they enter kindergarten, the children enrolled in these services should already have an established “individualized education program,” or a specialized learning plan tailored to their individual needs.
The court’s decision calls on the city to ensure that at least 8.5 percent of District residents between the ages of 3 and 5 are receiving special-education services. The law states that once identified, each child must be fully evaluated within 120 days.
In the 2014-2015 school year, the city provided special education and related services to 6.2 percent of the city’s 3- to 5-year-olds, District officials reported.
“The District’s lack of effective Child Find and transition policies is particularly troubling in light of the intense scrutiny and seemingly constant admonishment it has received over the last decade,” Judge Royce C. Lamberth wrote in his May opinion.
This lawsuit, D.L. v. District of Columbia, has dragged on for more than a decade, pinging between trial and appeals courts. A judge initially ruled in favor of the families, and the city was ordered to make improvements. The city appealed, and the case was returned to the lower court on a technicality. Last month, the lower court again ruled in favor of the families, with the judge ruling that the city still is not in compliance with federal law.
The city has not said on what grounds it is appealing the decision.
The city’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which oversees federal education programs, and the D.C. attorney general’s office, which is handling the case for the city, both said Friday they could not comment on an ongoing lawsuit.
When the lawsuit was filed in 2005, the District was only providing services for about 3 percent of children in this age group. That was below the national average of about 5 percent, according to Margaret Kohn, a lawyer for the plaintiffs since 2010.
On top of that, experts testified, the District has a number of factors, including high poverty and teenage pregnancy rates, that would contribute to the city’s actually having a higher percentage of young children with developmental delays than the average state has.
The judge acknowledged in his most recent ruling that the city has made significant improvements since 2005. When Michelle Rhee became chancellor of D.C. Public Schools in 2007, she opened a revamped diagnostic center and hired a developmental pediatrician to lead efforts to identify and evaluate children. The nation’s capital is one of a handful of cities that offers universal and free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, which puts more children in the school system at an earlier age.
“The District has come a long way since 2005 when this lawsuit was initiated, but it has not come far enough,” Lamberth wrote. “Indeed, while its progress has been in some ways impressive, the District started at such a low base that the advances it has made are insufficient to bring it into compliance with its legal obligations.”
If the city does not comply, the judge wrote, he will call for significantly more court oversight and monitoring than his current opinion ordered.
Judith Sandalow, the executive director of the Children’s Law Center, celebrated the decision and said she constantly sees children who are several grades behind in school whom the city has not yet identified as having a learning disability.
“The city is too quick to blame the child or the family for the child’s ability to learn,” Sandalow said.