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Justices Seek U.S. Views on Special Education Case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday asked the Obama administration for its views on whether a parent may bring a negligence claim against a school district that allegedly failed to identify a high school student's disabilities.

The justices asked the U.S. solicitor general's office to weigh in on the issue raised under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The case involves an appeal filed by the Compton, Calif., school district of two lower court rulings that the mother had a valid legal claim under the IDEA that the district had failed to identify her daughter's disabilities.

According to court papers, when the student was in 10th grade, her teachers became concerned that her work was "gibberish and incomprehensible" and that she had failed every class. The school district referred the girl to a mental health counselor, who recommended that the student be evaluated for learning disabilities. The district did not follow the recommendation, and it promoted the girl to the 11th grade.

The mother later made a request for an individualized education program for her daughter, and the district determined that the girl was eligible for special education services for a learning disability.

The mother brought an administrative claim under the IDEA, arguing that the school district failed under the law's "child find" requirement to identify the girl's disabilities sooner. That requirement obliges states to ensure that all children with disabilities who are in need of special education services are identified, located, and evaluated.

An administrative law judge largely sided with the family, ordering as much as 150 hours of compensatory tutoring for the girl's lost educational opportunities. However, the judge refused the family's request for a private school placement at public expense.

The school district appealed that ruling in federal district court, arguing among other things that if the family prevailed, students with disabilities would be able to bring "educational malpractice" claims against districts.

The district court rejected the school district's arguments, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, also sided with the family.

In a 2-1 decision in March 2010, the 9th Circuit panel rejected the school district's arguments that the IDEA did not authorize claims where there was no affirmative refusal to act on the part of district officials. The majority held that there was a broad jurisdictional mandate under the federal special education law, and that in this case there was "willful inaction" on the district's part in the face of numerous "red flags" about the student's disabilities.

The dissenter on the 9th Circuit panel said the majority's interpretation would lead to "absurd" results.

"We cannot read the IDEA to require an agency give prior written notice that it will be negligent [and] describing ... the reasons it has decided to be negligent," U.S. Circuit Judge N. Randy Smith said in the dissent. "This majority's interpretation of the school district's duties weakens parents' role by casting the responsibility to monitor and identify children's development solely on to the shoulders of our school system."

The appeal is Compton Unified School District v. Addison (Case No. 10-886). The solicitor general's office typically takes several months to respond to the high court's request for its views in a given case.

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