Friday, April 1, 2011

The IDEA and a Child's Right to Free Public Education

By Jerry Maddox

Imagine that you are the parent of a student with medical and developmental disabilities. Your child requires augmentative communication technology and tube feeding services at school. You have just learned that while at school, your child was repeatedly placed in a windowless closet while she was restrained in a stroller. Furthermore, your child was unsupervised the entire time.  On one such occasion, your child fell and fractured her skull, which worsened her existing seizure disorder and caused her to be homeschooled for the rest of the school year. If this happened to your child, would you believe that her rights to obtain a free, appropriate public education had been violated? Would you believe that your child was eligible to receive damages for the physical harm and mental anguish caused by the seclusion technique?

This scenario happened to Ms. Padilla, whose daughter suffered serious harm at the hand of her public school teachers. In Padilla v. Sch. Dist. No. 1 of Denver, the Tenth Circuit held that the administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) precluded the availability of any section 1983 remedies and denied Ms. Padilla’s damages claims.

The Padilla holding reflects the prevalent attitude in the current Circuit Court split about whether section 1983 should be available for violations of IDEA. The Second, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits have all recently held that individuals may sue under section 1983 to enforce IDEA. The First, Third, Fourth, Ninth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits currently maintain that individuals may not sue under section 1983 to enforce IDEA. The Fifth, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits have not yet ruled on this issue. Ms. Padilla’s daughter may have received section 1983 damages if she sued in the Second, Sixth, or Seventh Circuits.  As it stands today, a student’s jurisdiction determines whether section 1983 damages will be available for IDEA violations.

There are no cases pending in the Supreme Court’s docket regarding IDEA violations. If the Supreme Court were to review an IDEA violation case, it would likely rely on its analyses in Barnstable School Committee and Rancho Palos Verdes, and find that IDEA’s express, private remedial scheme is meant to preclude section 1983 enforcement. Before such a case gets to the Supreme Court, Congress should clarify its language so that the courts can accurately apply the IDEA statute. The IDEA statute allows a judge in a civil action to award the type of relief that the court determines is appropriate. This broad statement leaves open the possibility of any relief that the judge deems applicable to the case at hand. Such a flexible standard should be read to fit the current legislative landscape of section 1415(l). Congress must clarify section 1415(l) of the IDEA statute by explicitly inserting “section 1983” as a listed law. This will ensure that all students have an equal opportunity to enforce their right to a free, appropriate, public education.

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