Judge holds D.C. in contempt for failing to provide education to students with disabilities in jail

“Today’s contempt order is a historic victory for the often-ignored high school inmates at DC Prison,” said Tayo Bell, senior prosecutor at the School Justice Project, a nonprofit that advocates for older students with disabilities on the courts. statement.

The order came more than 10 months after the School Justice Project, the Washington Committee of Lawyers for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the law firm Terris Pravlik & Millian filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of disabled students imprisoned in the District of Columbia during the pandemic. arguing that the city “actually abandoned efforts to train them”, according to the complaint. Although some services have since improved, the contempt order has revealed deep and persistent disruptions to the high school program, which lawyers say is responsible for 30 to 40 students at any one time.

Under city law, DC is responsible for providing special education to people aged 18 to 22 with disabilities while they are in custody. This means that the DC Prison High School program – run by DC public schools until the Maya Angelo State Charter School took over in October – should have services such as speech pathology to ensure everyone can access curriculum.

This was stated by the plaintiffs’ lawyers services stopped when the coronavirus landed, and did not resume more than a year later. According to the court, until April 2021 there were still no regular teaching instructions or any related services. Instead, it was expected that students at the time would run work packages on time and without sufficient support.

Two months after lawyers filed a class action lawsuit, Nichols issued a preliminary injunction under which DC required “full hours of special education and related services” for students with disabilities for 15 days.

More than a semester later Nichols found that the city failed to do so.

“Although things have improved in January, every student currently enrolled in the program remains with an unforgivable shortage of education this school year,” Nichols wrote in his order. a few months before the start of the school year. “

In response to the order, Columbia Public Schools stated that “we value and strive to promote learning that serves the educational experience of every student, including students who are in custody. DCPS is reviewing the court ruling and working with institutional partners to address the next steps. ”

Nichols said in the order that the government claimed that “they are trying to comply, but for various reasons it is difficult to do.”

Sarah Como, program director and co-founder of the School Justice Project, said there have been small improvements since Maya Angelo moved to the high school senior program in October. Some students resumed personal classes, while other programs became more regular. But she said there have always been students who have not received the special education and services to which they are entitled.

“The county’s inability to educate these young people and enforce federal laws has virtually left the entire population of students with disabilities at this institution,” she said.

The Maya Angelou State Charter School did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The city has a month to present plans to eliminate the loss of tuition for each student enrolled in prison high school from September 1, 2021 to January 31, 2022, in addition to introducing a distance learning system by mid-March. The city must also, in accordance with the contempt order, extend the right to participate in the program to all students who would receive special education services during the period covered by the previous ban.

“The contempt order is a clear signal that the District of Columbia must take seriously its commitment to special education and related services in the District of Columbia Prison,” said Caitlin Banner, deputy director of legal affairs for the Washington Bar Association. on civil rights and urban issues.

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