WA Supreme Court: Abuse and discrimination claims can go straight to court

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Washington State

A unanimous Washington State Supreme Court ruled  August 25 that parents and guardians of students enrolled in special education services can bypass the federal special education hearings process and file lawsuits in state courts when pursuing abuse and discrimination claims.

In the lawsuit, 10 parents and guardians alleged that the Clover Park School District in Lakewood, a Tacoma, WA suburb, had failed to prevent sexual assault and other acts of mistreatment against students with disabilities by other students and that school district employees had force-fed students against their will and discriminated against them because of their disabilities, among other claims.

The District argued that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a successor law to the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, parents and guardians had to exhaust the administrative complaint process before filing abuse and discrimination claims because some of the students’ alleged injuries could be redressed by that process. The process was created to address issues relating to whether students in special education programs are receiving their legally mandated “free appropriate public education” and to address claims relating to the placement of students in alternative-educational settings.

In the ruling, the Washington State Supreme Court reversed a trial court decision dismissing the case without a trial and ordered the court to hear the case in front of a jury. It stated that the IDEA hearing process was not meant to preempt state claims, only federal claims, and that the District could not use the process as a way to avoid non-education related lawsuits.

DisAbility Rights Washington attorney Heather McKimmie, along with The Arc of Washington State, wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the students and their parents and guardians, arguing that the District’s position created unnecessary roadblocks unique to students with disabilities.

“Several courts have held that claims for injuries resulting from the torts of assault and infliction of emotional distress are examples of claims that do not need to be exhausted under the IDEA because these torts are not connected to education, irrespective of whether they occurred in a school setting,” DRW and the Arc wrote in their brief. “It would be fundamentally unfair to require children with disabilities to exhaust when there are no administrative barriers for children without disabilities who choose to pursue tort claims that occur in schools.”

DisAbility Rights Washington, the sponsor of DisAbility Rights Galaxy, is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.