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District of Columbia Ordered to Improve Child Find, Special Education Services

A ruling on a long-running, class-action lawsuit against the District of Columbia will require the city to increase the number of young children that it evaluates and identifies for special education services—a process known as "child find"—and also to improve those students' transition into grade school. 

The ruling in D.L. v District of Columbia, from U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, says that the District of Columbia must ensure that at least 95 percent of all preschool children referred for special education services receive a timely eligibility determination, and that 95 percent of infants and toddlers that are receiving early intervention services receive a "smooth and effective" transition to special education services by their third birthday. 

The May 18 ruling goes further, stating that the city must enroll at least 8.5 percent of its preschool age population in special education. That figure came from expert testimony based on risk factors in the District of Columbia compared to other jurisdictions, and to incidences of developmental delays nationwide.

D.C.'s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which oversees special education evaluation services and other provisions of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for the city, has not responded to requests for comment. 

This case dates back to 2005, when a group of parents sued the city, saying their young children were not receiving the services they were entitled to under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In 2011, Lamberth ordered the District of Columbia to take steps very similar to this recent ruling. 

However, in 2013, the case was reversed, based on a successful technical challenge from the District of Columbia about whether the "class" in this class-action lawsuit was properly certified.The lawyers for the parents recertified the class, and the case continued. 

This is not the first time that the District of Columbia has been cited for violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Lamberth said that the continued problems in the District of Columbia were "particularly troubling in light of the intense scrutiny and seemingly constant admonishment it has received over the last decade."

He continued: 

...[The federal Office of Special Education Programs] informed [Office of the State Superintendent of Education] in 2015 that it "needs intervention in implementing the requirements of Part B of the IDEA" for the "ninth consecutive year," which is the longest period in the country. Although OSEP's long-running "needs intervention" determination does not deal exclusively with the statutory obligations at issue in this litigation, it contributes to the overarching narrative that the District requires strong, outside involvement to produce even minimally acceptable results.

Margaret A. Kohn, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs, said she was pleased that the ruling focused on whether the city was actually meeting its obligations, not whether it had appropriate rules in place. During the litigation, the District had argued that its policies are effective and comply with the IDEA, but the judge agreed with the plaintiffs that the District's self-reported data inflated how well the city was actually doing in meeting the needs of its young residents. 

"We're grateful that the court focused on the results and not just the policies," Kohn said. "We hope the decision will help the District of Columbia move foward so that the court will no longer have to be involved in monitoring this." 

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