High court rules on special ed  responsibility for jailed students

High court rules on special ed responsibility for jailed students

(Calif.) In a case that could prompt legislative action, the state’s highest court ruled last week that responsibility for providing special education services to eligible county jail inmates falls to the school district in which the inmate’s parents reside.

At issue in Los Angeles Unified School District v. Michael Garcia was California Education Code section 56041, which provides generally that for qualifying pupils between the ages of 18 and 22 years the school district where the pupil’s parent resides is responsible for providing special education and related services. Qualifications include that one, the individual had been identified for special education prior to being incarcerated and, two, he or she had not yet earned a high school diploma or GED.

The case stems from a complaint filed in 2009 by the Disability Rights Legal Center on behalf of Michael Garcia, who had received special education services from his home district, Los Angeles Unified, since being identified in second grade as having specific learning deficiencies as well as speech and language impairments.

“Although section 56041 does not by its terms specifically address county jail inmates, the statutory language is broad enough to encompass special education programs for eligible county jail inmates between the ages of 18 and 22 years, and no other statute explicitly assigns responsibility for the provision of special education to such individuals,” Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye wrote in the court’s Dec. 12 ruling.

“Applying the terms of section 56041 to assign responsibility in this setting is consistent with the purposes of the statute and the special education scheme as a whole, and does not create absurd or unworkable results.”

When Garcia was 15, he left LA Unified and enrolled in the Soledad Enrichment Action Charter School, chartered by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which then provided his special education services. His mother continued to reside in Bell, where she had lived prior to his birth and continues to live today.

Prior to Garcia’s 16th birthday, he was arrested on felony charges and held at the Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles County. While Garcia was being detained in the juvenile facility, he was provided a special education program by the Los Angeles County Office of Education, which, by statute, is the entity responsible for providing general and special education in the county’s juvenile court schools.

In June 2008, when Garcia turned 18, he was transferred from the juvenile facility to the Los Angeles County Jail to await trial.

Shortly after, the legal battles began, with the Disability Rights Legal Center alleging that Garcia and others like him were being denied a free appropriate public education as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act because there was no system for delivering special education services for eligible inmates in the Los Angeles County jail.

After an initial 2009 ruling in Garcia’s favor by the California Office of Administrative Hearings, LA Unified provided the incarcerated young man’s special education program but filed a series of appeals, arguing – among other things – that the intent of section 56041 is not to assign responsibility for providing special education to eligible county jail inmates because the statute does not expressly refer to county jails. The California School Boards Association offered arguments in the case as well.

The matter went all the way to the Ninth Circuit court, which then asked California’s Supreme Court to rule on the issue.

The court acknowledged LA Unified’s argument that the impetus for lawmakers’ enactment of section 56041 was to solve a problem resulting from the placement of a minor pupil in a residential school located outside the geographical boundaries of the pupil’s district of residence — that is, outside the district in which the parent resided.

Justices surmised, however, that while legislators “were presented with a specific and narrow problem, they did not limit the statute’s application to only those situations in which a school district had placed the minor student in a residential school outside of its jurisdictional boundaries. Instead, the statute is worded in broader terms. It distinguishes only between conserved and nonconserved pupils and, as previously discussed, its only express limitations are the exceptions to the residency requirements for compulsory education generally.”

In addition, the justices found arguments by the school district that applying section 56041 to assign responsibility for providing special education programs to eligible county jail inmates “would lead to absurd, unworkable results” to be unfounded.

“In this regard, we agree with Garcia that any potential difficulties arising from designating the school district in which the county jail inmate’s parent resides as the entity responsible for providing special education and related services in a county jail may be overcome by the school district’s ability to contract with another school district or agency to deliver the necessary services,” Cantil-Sakauye wrote in the unanimous opinion. “Our review of the special education scheme discloses furthermore that in a number of settings the Legislature has imposed on school districts the responsibility for funding special education programs for eligible pupils who reside within the geographic boundaries of another district or even another state.”  

To view the Supreme Court decision in its entirety, click here.