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No IDEA Protections for Students Misplaced in Special Education, Court Rules

Children mistakenly identified by their schools as having disabilities may not bring claims under the main federal special education law, despite a recognition by Congress of the problem of overrepresentation of minorities in special education, a federal appeals court has ruled.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, said that a Pennsylvania family made "emotionally compelling" arguments about the problem of misidentification of minority children for special education.

But there is no indication that the definition of "child with a disability" in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act "includes children who are mistakenly identified as disabled, but who are, in fact, not disabled," the court panel said in a unanimous opinion.

"Therefore, under the act's plain language, it is clear that the IDEA creates a cause of action only for individuals with disabilities," the court added.

The ruling came in a case brought by an African-American student and her mother in the Lower Merion, Pa., school district. The student, identified as S.H., and her mother had numerous interactions with school officials over the child's school progress. By 5th grade, S.H. was placed in special education for a perceived learning disability. Her mother went along with an Individualized Education Plan despite her daughter's objections to receiving services.

By the time S.H. reached high school, her mother began to question whether she still belonged in special education, court papers say. The student tested at grade level and had even made the Honor Roll in middle schools. The family's suit alleged that a school district psychologist evaded the mother's request to see a copy of an evaluation document by claiming that it had been destroyed.

An independent evaluation administered when S.H. was in 10th grade concluded that the student's designation as learning disabled was, and always had been, erroneous. S.H. was not in special education for her last two years of high school.

The family sued the school district seeking compensation under the IDEA, as well as claims of intentional discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

The suit alleged that S.H.'s mistaken placement in special education had kept her from taking certain electives in middle school and high school and had damaged her self-confidence and academic progress. The suit sought $127,000 in damages, which would go for tutoring, psychotherapy, and two years of college tuition.

A federal district court dismissed the family's IDEA claim and granted summary judgment to the school district on the other claims.

In its Sept. 5 decision in S.H. v. Lower Merion School District, the 3rd Circuit court panel affirmed, holding that the IDEA allowed claims to be brought only on behalf of students with disabilities.

The family pointed to the IDEA's legislative history, including congressional findings in more recent reauthorizations of the statute that expressed concerns about misidentification of minority students for special education.

For example, the federal law's "findings" section says: "More minority children continue to be served in special education than would be expected from the percentage of minority students in the general school population. African-American children are identified as having intellectual disabilities and emotional disturbance at rates greater than their white counterparts."

The family argued that such language suggests that after a child has been misidentified for special education, that child should enjoy the same protections of the IDEA hearing process and other remedies.

But the 3rd Circuit court said the IDEA's plain statutory language answered the question of whether the law applied to students without disabilities, so there was no need to consult legislative history. In any event, the legislative history sought only to draw attention to the problem of overidentification of minority students for special education, but did not support the notion that Congress wanted to create a legal cause of action for such students, the court said.

The court also held that the family did not face intentional discrimination under the Rehabilitation Act or the ADA. The court rejected the family's arguments that S.H.'s good grades and pattern of improved test scores should have put the district on notice earlier that she did not belong in special education. First, much of the testing data was inconclusive, the court said.

"Additionally, [the family] offered no evidence that high test scores are an indication that a student likely does not have a learning disability, nor [has it] offered evidence that children in special education usually do not receive good grades."

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