Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Does the IDEA Obligation to Prepare Students for "Independent Living" Include Preparation to Live in a Religious Community? by Maria Blaeuer

A special education case of note, M.L. ex rel. Leiman V. Starr, PWG-14-1679, was filed last month in Maryland.  It involves tuition reimbursement under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. The parents' filed for a due process hearing after they unilaterally placed their child, who has Down Syndrome,  in an Orthodox Jewish special education school.  They lost the due process hearing and then filed a claim in federal district court, where they again lost, this time after cross-motions for summary judgment.   

The parents' essential argument is that because of their child's disability, he requires explicit instruction in the traditions and practices of Orthodox Judaism at school if he is to be able to live independently in his Orthodox community after his time in public school ends.  The parents argue that this instruction is not available in the public school and, therefore, the school district must pay for his education at an Orthodox special education school.  A straight forward and typical argument in these cases, except for the inclusion of the words "Orthodox Judaism".     

While this case sounds narrow, it could have a broader impact because of IDEA's mandate to prepare students for independent living, further education and employment.   It has the potential to speak to, and define, what obligations school districts have to meet the needs of students with disabilities regarding their participation in their community, and specifically who gets to define what that community is.

The parents have now filed notice of intent to appeal.  Their attorney took Schaffer v. Weast--a case dealing with the burden of proof in individual education plan cases--to the Supreme Court in 2005, so it may be one to watch.


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