Agreement requires LA education agency to provide special education services in jails

a child reaches out of a jail cell
Youth Entitled to Special Education while Incarcerated

A federal court signed off September 14 on a comprehensive settlement with disability advocates and the Los Angeles County Office of Education to implement new safeguards to ensure inmates with disabilities receive special education services.

“This settlement is a significant step towards ensuring students with disabilities in a custodial setting receive the special education services they need to be successful in life and obtain gainful employment upon release,” said Anna Rivera, senior staff attorney at the Disability Rights Legal Center, in a news release. “It’s through education that we break the cycle of recidivism.”

In December 2009, the DRLC and Milbank Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Michael Garcia, a then 19-year-old man with learning disabilities and a speech and language impairment who is now serving a 12-year sentence in state prison. At the time of the lawsuit’s filing, Garcia was detained in the Los Angeles County Jail, which denied it was responsible for providing Garcia special education services.

No other state or local agency accepted responsibility for providing Garcia services either. Accordingly, the lawsuit named as defendants the Los Angeles County Office of Education, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the California Department of Education, and Hacienda La Puente Unified School District.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, all students with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education from ages 3 to 21. However, the federal government left it to the states to determine which agencies are responsible for implementing this mandate.

In 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit transferred the case to the California Supreme Court, to determine the responsible state agency under state law, specifically California Code Section 56041.

This provision specifies that generally, the school district where the child’s parent or parents reside is the responsible agency. Exceptions apply for students placed in foster care, or institutional or hospital settings. Since the provision did not specify an exception for people in county jails, the California Supreme Court ruled [PDF] that the residing school district remains the applicable agency.

Although litigation continues against the other-named defendants, the plaintiffs hope the recently approved settlement with the Los Angeles Office of Education will begin to ensure system-wide complaince.

Under the settlement, the Office must obtain, on an ongoing basis, a list from the Los Angeles Sherrif’s Department of individuals who have requested special education services, and use the list to notify the student’s education districts, according to the Notice of Proposed Class Action Settlement [PDF]. It must also take steps to inform inmates of their rights to special education services and provide additional training to the Office’s personnel.

The Office of Education is also instructed to attempt to make an agreement with the Los Angeles County Probation Department to create procedures to ensure a continuum of services between when students are placed in juvenile placements and jails.

The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California will retain jurisdiction over the agreement for three years, or longer if its terms are not met.