Court Ruling Reinforces the Financial Responsibility of Schools to Provide Special Education Services

The Third Circuit Court of Appeals in D.E. v. Central Dauphin has issued an important ruling that will help students with disabilities obtain special education services that their schools have failed to provide. This decision applies to students with disabilities in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

When a student doesn’t receive the special education services he or she needs, a hearing officer or court can order a district to provide compensatory education, which consists of supplemental programs to help the child reach full potential. Nevertheless, some districts have refused to cover the costs for the compensatory special education services they wrongly withheld. Instead, they have sometimes offered to pay reimbursements to the families, but only after those families took it upon themselves to initially cover those missed services. These up-front costs are prohibitively expensive for many families, leaving their children without therapy, tutoring, or other special educational services that should have been provided by the District. The Third Circuit Court has now lifted this unfair financial burden by ruling that a student’s obtainment of legally-mandated assistance “should not depend upon whether a student or his parents have the financial means to front the costs.”

The case was brought forth by D.E., a student with a learning disability from the Central Dauphin School District. From kindergarten through seventh grade, D.E. was misdiagnosed, wrongly passed over for Extended School Year (ESY) services, and repeatedly misclassified by those overseeing his IEP.  D.E.’s parents removed him from the district when he was in eighth grade and, after a hearing, the district was ordered to compensate D.E. for the equivalent of 10,000 hours of missed support services. Central Dauphin claimed that the family should first pay for the 10,000 hours on their own and that the district was only required to reimburse them after the fact. However, D.E.’s family, like many, couldn’t afford to cover such a towering cost up-front.

Fortunately, on August 27, the Third Circuit Court ruled that the family shouldn’t have to pay those costs. For the school district to limit compensation to reimbursement is to place all of the responsibility on D.E. and his parents, which the Court determined “is contrary to the very purpose of the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act], which is to provide a remedy for those denied” a free, quality education. School districts can no longer evade their duty to compensate overlooked students with disabilities nor can they only reimburse costs after families have paid up-front. Rather, schools must now compensate students for the full amount of awarded supplemental services.

The Court’s decision included a bonus victory for students with disabilities seeking justice: Up to this point, students must have “exhausted administrative remedies” before suing districts that had not paid their ordered compensation. This meant that if a local hearing officer awarded a student compensation for missed services and the district subsequently didn’t pay for the services, the student would have been forced to appeal the entire decision – even though they had already won – before being allowed to sue the district for withholding payment. The Court struck down this unnecessary administrative step, ruling that students seeking overdue payment “may properly pursue such claims in court.” Thus, this ruling will remove much of the red tape which has prevented students with disabilities from receiving the educational support services guaranteed them by the law.