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D.C. Gets Dressed Down in Suit Over Identifying Students

At the start of a trial last month over whether the District of Columbia did enough to locate and serve children with disabilities in 2008, 2009, and 2010, the plaintiffs told the federal court judge the District hadn't provided them with all of the documents related to the case—the discovery, in court parlance—though the trial was officially underway.

At the time, Chief Judge Royce C. Lamberth of federal district court in Washington was nonplussed. He told the school district to produce the documents, including those they had wanted to keep confidential, because they had had plenty of time to do so before the trial. He seemed unimpressed with the District's reasoning that the delay was because of understaffing and the overwhelming amount of work providing the documents would entail.

The court case dates back about six years. Parents who ended up paying for private services for their disabled children want the district to pay their tab as well as do a better job of identifying and serving kids like theirs in the future. (Child Find is a requirement under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.) The judge ruled on part of the case in the past, finding the district had not done its Child Find duties in 2005, 2006, and 2007. This trial was to determine if the District has been in the wrong since then, too.

(Without the thousands of emails and other documents in question, the attorneys for the families fighting the district presumably couldn't be as prepared for the trial as they could if they had them in hand.)

When the District asked Judge Lamberth to reconsider, he was just as firm in a ruling he issued this month.

I typically wouldn't mention a ruling like this one, which doesn't end the case. The judge still has to decide whether DC public schools didn't do enough in 2008, 2009, and 2010 to find and serve children with disabilities. And the judge's tone in his ruling doesn't mean he will rule for the plaintiffs.

But his language is strong, and some of it is worth repeating.

"Imagine a standup comic who delivers the punch-lines of his jokes first, a plane with landing gear that deploys just after touchdown, or a stick of dynamite with a unique fuse that ignites only after it explodes. That's what document production after trial is like—it defeats the purpose," the judge wrote. "A discovery violation of this exotic magnitude is literally unheard of in this Court. ..."

The families who want the district to reform its Child Find work will get the documents, but the trial is already over. The only real victory left for the taking may be if the judge rules in these families' favor later this year.

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