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Calif. High Court Says Districts Are Responsible for Services to Jailed Youths

Young adults incarcerated in county jail who are eligible for special education services are the responsibility of the school district where their parents reside, said the California Supreme Court in a ruling released earlier this month.

There was no dispute that the student at the center of the case, Michael Garcia, now 23 and serving a prison sentence, was qualified to receive special education services, wrote Chief Justice Tani Gorre Cantil-Sakauye. At question, however, was what agency should be responsible for those services once Garcia transferred from a juvenile detention facility to the county jail when he turned 18. State law makes it clear what entity is responsible for youths in juvenile facilities, but was silent on responsibility for those in jail. Garcia had fallen into a gap in the law experienced by perhaps hundreds of young adults in county jail, according to an article on Garcia's situation written by the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, 

Garcia's lawyers argued that his special education program should be administered by Los Angeles Unified School District because his mother lived within its boundaries. In a Dec. 12 decision, the court agreed, finding that California statutes assign responsibility for youths aged 18-22 in county jail to the "district of residence," just as the district would be responsible for those who aren't in jail. 

The court noted that California lawmakers had carved out exception to this general rule: for example, young adults in foster homes or in state hospitals are the responsibility of the district where the foster home or hospital is located. And for youths in juvenile detention facilities, educational responsibility rests with the county board of education where the facilitiy is housed. But without such an exception, the court said the language of the statute is broad enough to indicate that special education services are the responsibility of the district where the youth's family lives. 

For Garcia, the case became moot when he was sentenced to 12 years in prison in September 2010. But the court decided to consider the case anyway, it said, because other jailed youths were not receiving services, and were unlikely to stay in jail long enough for a legal challenge to be resolved.

Los Angeles Unified argued that such a ruling would offer significant logistical problems, such as having  to provide special education services to youths who are in jails far from its boundaries. It also warned of staffing and security issues. The court said that the district is free to contract with other school systems if an inmate is being housed far from its boundaries.

"L.A. Unified's argument describing the various difficulties that could arise when many, perhaps distant, school districts are assigned responsibility for providing special education to eligible 18- to 22-year-old pupils who are incarcerated in a single county jail raises valid, palpable concerns. But none of the identified problems is insurmountable or renders [the state statute on special education placements] unworkable," Cantil-Sakauye wrote.

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