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Judge Orders D.C. to Improve Special Education for Young Children

A federal judge has ruled that District of Columbia public schools must make sweeping changes to how young children with disabilities are located and served.

In a ruling last week, Judge Royce Lamberth said the district must ensure that 8.5 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 5 are enrolled in special education and related services, as required by federal law.

In recent years, the district has fallen far short of that number, serving as little as 2.7 percent of that group of kids. An expert witness who testified in the case came up with the 8.5 percent figure.

That's just one of the requirements in a ruling that may be the beginning of the end of a class-action case filed by parents of seven young children with disabilities in 2005 who said the school district delayed or blocked their kids from getting services. Those parents will be entitled to compensation for services they may have paid for on their own.

Many children who exhibit signs of a disability early and get help while they are still very young may not need special help when they get older.

The judge also ruled that at least 95 percent of all preschool children referred for services must get timely evaluations.

For younger children, infants through age 3, the school district must be sure that at least 95 percent of them who are found eligible for services provided to children age 3 and older receive a smooth and effective transition by their third birthdays.

There are no deadlines by which the school system must meet the judge's orders, although the ruling remains in effect until its requirements are met. The school district can appeal the ruling.

Still, the ruling in the long-running case is a victory for parents and young children, both for those involved in the case and for those in the future who have disabilities.

"This is vindication of the rights of young children and their parents who have been denied access to timely evaluations, smooth transitions at the age of 3 to prevent gaps in services, and denied a free appropriate public education for months and years at a time," said Bruce Terris, an attorney for the plaintiffs, in a statement.

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