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U.S. Urges Supreme Court Not to Hear Special Education Case

The Obama administration is urging the U.S. Supreme Court not to take up an appeal from a school district ordered to provide compensatory tutoring because it failed to identify a student's disability.

The justices had asked the U.S. solicitor general's office for its views last April on a question under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: whether a parent may bring a claim in a due-process hearing that a district violated the law's "child-find" provision.

That provision requires that all children with disabilities who are in need of special education services be identified, located, and evaluated.

The case involves an appeal from the Compton Unified School District, in California. The district appealed lower court rulings that a 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. 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.

The school district appealed in Compton Unified School District v. Addison (Case No. 10-886).

The justices sought the views of the United States, and in a brief filed Nov. 18, U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr. said the court should not take up the school district's appeal for several reasons.

First, Verrilli said an administrative-law judge conducting a due-process hearing under the federal special education law has the authority to consider claims that a district violated the "child find" requirement.

Verrilli said the Compton district is mistaken to argue that the provision covers only a school district's refusal to act to identify eligible children, not its failure to act.

Second, the solicitor general said a 2010 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, does not conflict with other federal appeals courts on the issue.

Finally, Verrilli said the Compton case would make a poor vehicle for deciding the issue. The case does not really present the issue that districts would be subject to a form of "educational malpractice" claim, as Compton contends.

"Whether or not parents are permitted to initiate due process procedures for violation of the child-find requirements, school districts already are subject to claims that their educational decisions fail to comply with the IDEA," the solicitor general said.

Now that the solicitor general has chimed in, the justices have put the case on the agenda for their Jan. 6 private conference for possible action.

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