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Are Children at Private Schools Entitled to Services Under Section 504?

The parents of a student in Baltimore have sued the school district for not providing services under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

The parents of student D.L., who has ADHD and an anxiety disorder, enrolled their child in a private school several years ago. Then they requested an evaluation from the school district to see if their child was eligible for special education services.

Eventually, their lawsuit says, the city of Baltimore school district evaluated D.L. and found that he was eligible for 504 services, but not while attending a private school. When the parents filed an official complaint, the hearing officer agreed that D.L. couldn't get 504 services even if he or she was enrolled at both the private school and a public school. He had to be enrolled at a public school full time. That led to a lawsuit in 2010.

A U.S. District Court in Maryland upheld the school district's decision.

However, D.L.'s family appealed to the 4th District Court of Appeals last fall. And now the National School Boards Association and other groups are voicing their support for the district court's ruling.

"Congress did not intend through Section 504 for school districts to pay for students enrolled unilaterally in private schools by their parents," said NSBA's General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón Jr., in a statement. "The Fourth Circuit should not expand Section 504 to require public schools to fund the education of students in private schools beyond the parameters of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act."

The NSBA is joined by the Maryland Association of Boards of Education and the Virginia School Boards Association.

There are times when school districts must provide services to students in private schools, especially when the districts have decided that's the best educational option for a student.

But unlike students with disabilities as defined by IDEA, schools don't get any extra money to provide services for students who have disabilities under Section 504, although the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights recently issued guidance better defining schools' obligations to these students.

"The position of the parents would result in significant practical and educational consequences for the thousands of local school districts responsible primarily for serving public school students," the NSBA's brief to the court says. "Local school districts receive no federal funding under Section 504, and little or no state funding, to provide services to private school students. Equally important, the effect of the parents‟ position would be further to overtax public school districts' therapists, counselors, psychologists, special education teachers, and other specialized personnel, who are already in critically short supply."

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