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Supreme Court Case Could Change How Special Ed Disputes Are Handled

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The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools this week. (Thinkstock)

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments this week in a case affecting the rights of students with disabilities when disputes arise between schools and families.

The case known as Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools will go before the high court on Wednesday raising key issues under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Specifically, the justices will consider whether families can pursue claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act if they have already settled IDEA claims without fully exhausting all administrative proceedings under IDEA first.

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The case also raises the issue of whether families must exhaust administrative procedures under IDEA before seeking monetary damages that are not available under that law.

In the matter at hand, the family of Miguel Luna Perez, who is deaf, sued the Sturgis Public Schools in Michigan for failing to provide him a qualified sign language interpreter for 12 years. The family thought that Perez would receive a high school diploma, but according to court filings, they found out not long before graduation that he would instead be receiving a certificate of completion.

The school district and the family reached a settlement to resolve Perez’ claims of discrimination under IDEA, but his family then sought monetary damages through an ADA suit. The ADA claim was rejected, however, by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals which found that by accepting the IDEA settlement the family did not fully exhaust their options under IDEA.

In asking the Supreme Court to take up the case, Perez’ family noted that the decision conflicts with rulings from other circuit courts and ties the hands of families of students with disabilities.

“It essentially requires children with disabilities to turn down even full IDEA settlements — and forgo their ability to immediately receive an IDEA-mandated ‘free appropriate public education’ — to preserve their distinct non-IDEA claims,” reads the petition to the Supreme Court. “There is no way that is what Congress intended.”

More than a dozen advocacy groups, professors with expertise in disability law, former Department of Education officials, former members of Congress and the solicitor general have filed amicus briefs supporting Perez.

“Students with disabilities already face inordinate obstacles in getting the education they need to build their future,” said Shira Wakschlag, senior director of legal advocacy and general counsel at The Arc, one of the groups that’s backing Perez. “If the lower court decision is allowed to stand, it will cause further harm to students with disabilities who already experience segregation and discrimination in school and will burden parents by forcing them to jump through futile and unnecessary hoops in order to pursue non-IDEA civil rights claims in federal court.”

Meanwhile, several groups representing school leaders have filed briefs in favor of the Sturgis schools.

“If exhaustion under the IDEA is weakened or no longer required, parents and district leaders will stop finding ways to work together and turn their attention to the courts,” reads a brief spearheaded by AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “Creating a ‘culture of litigation’ could encourage all parties to focus more on their ultimate litigation positions, and less on the needs of the child before them.”

A decision in the case is expected by June.

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