Special education clash: How one student's Supreme Court case could make schools more accountable
Miguel Perez, who is deaf, seemed to be a model student. But months before graduation his parents learned the truth. Now they're fighting to give disabled students more power to sue when things go wrong.
WASHINGTON – For more than a decade, Miguel Perez appeared to be a model student – bringing home As and Bs on his report cards, regularly making honor roll and closely relying on the aide his school assigned to him because he is deaf.
And so his parents were stunned when, months before graduation, they learned their son would receive a "certificate of completion" rather than a diploma. The aide assigned by his small Michigan school district, it turned out, didn’t know sign language. After 12 years in school, with no other disability, Perez was reading at a 3rd-grade level.
Perez is now asking the Supreme Court to make it easier for families to sue schools for damages in one of the most significant special education cases in years. The decision, expected by the end of June, could help parents and schools clarify one piece of a byzantine puzzle of laws that govern the nation's 7.2 million special education students.
It could also shift the balance of power between parents and schools as they steer through what can be a contentious negotiation over the education of individual disabled students, experts say. A ruling for Perez, in other words, could give parents more leverage.
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"There was one other deaf student, but we couldn’t communicate with each other. Nobody interpreted for me," Perez, now 27, recalled in a statement provided by his lawyer with the assistance of multiple interpreters. "I don't have a job, but I want to have one. I want to make my own choices."
The case, Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, involves the interplay between two federal laws, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, and the Americans with Disabilities Act. At issue is whether a student may sue a school for damages under the ADA when he or she hasn’t finished the administrative process required by the IDEA.
Settled but not resolved
Perez's journey through the 3,000-student school district in southern Michigan underscores the challenges faced by many students who have disabilities.
His family alleges school officials misrepresented the qualifications of his aide. They say that aide, in later years, was assigned to other duties, leaving Perez unable to communicate with anyone for hours every day. And Perez was promoted through each grade level despite not having a grasp of the curriculum, his attorneys say.
His difficulties were compounded by the fact that his family emigrated from Mexico when Perez was 9 years old. His parents spoke only Spanish.
By the time the parents of special education students like Perez get into court they have already engaged with the district for years to develop what's known as an Individualized Education Program, an individual plan for their student's education required by the IDEA. That process involves a negotiation between parents, who are attempting to get as much as they can for their children, and districts, which are required by law to provide a "free appropriate education" but must also weigh the costs.
Schools and parents negotiate IEPs for a wide range of disabilities, including dyslexia, medical issues, speech or language impairments and autism.
Perez filed a complaint with Michigan officials in 2017 alleging his school violated state and federal laws, including the IDEA. Before that complaint was resolved, the district offered to settle, agreeing to pay for Perez to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf.
Perez's family took the settlement.
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His family then sued the district under the Americans with Disability Act for discrimination, seeking unspecified monetary damages. A federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that Perez had not exhausted the required IDEA process because he accepted the settlement. A divided panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit agreed. Perez appealed to the Supreme Court in late 2021.
Art Ebert, the district's superintendent, declined to address the claims raised in the suit – he wasn't leading the district when Perez attended Sturgis – but he said in an email that because of the experience the district would "gain knowledge, insight, and understanding that will help us maximize every student's true potential."
'Culture of litigation'
While the legal issue is technical, advocates say the ruling could have significant consequences by giving parents more power to negotiate with schools.
A ruling for the district, disability advocates say, might discourage parents from settling with schools if doing so means giving up the right to sue for damages later.
"Students with disabilities and their families are already facing immense obstacles in getting the education they need," said Shira Wakschlag, senior director of legal advocacy at The Arc, a disability advocacy organization. A ruling against Perez, she said, would add "to the burden of families who are already immensely burdened."
But a ruling for Perez might change the way schools approach special education, said Malhar Shah, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund. Districts would be on notice, he said, that "they can no longer immunize themselves as easily as they could previously from those money damages."
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Schools say that argument is backward: If parents could more easily sue for damages it would inject a legal battle over money into the IDEA process, which is intended to quickly address students' needs. School districts might be forced to approach that process differently if their actions could be used against them in a suit for damages.
"The primary concern of the school district is working with parents," said Francisco Negrón, chief legal officer at the National School Boards Association. "It would be a shame if the court rules in a way that provides a disincentive to that process."
Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director of the School Superintendents Association, said she worries such a ruling would lead parents "to prioritize money from the districts over educational services" and create "a culture of litigation."
Perry Zirkel, a professor emeritus of law and education at Lehigh University, framed the dispute in terms of leverage. Lawyers representing a student, he said, might argue they want "the possibility of a million-dollar judgement because that will cause districts to do the right thing."
But Zirkel cautioned against expecting too much to change because of the court's decision. That's because, he said, most families suing a school for damages under the ADA lose.
"It is by far the exception to the rule that a family would win money,” he said.
Service dog leads
The Supreme Court last waded into these issues in 2017 in a case called Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools. A student with cerebral palsy sued for damages after the school barred her service dog, Wonder, from the classroom. The school argued the student didn't exhaust the process required under the IDEA before filing her suit.
In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that students don't have to wait to sue under the ADA if the thrust of their claim doesn't deal with the IDEA's guarantee of a free and appropriate education. In other words, the dog didn't have anything to do with the student's education. Banning the dog, rather, denied her equal access to a public facility.
The student, Ehlena Fry, ultimately settled.
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In Perez, the school district relies heavily on the Fry decision. After all, its lawyers argue, Perez's complaint is more squarely about education. But during a 90-minute oral argument in January, a majority of justices nevertheless signaled support for Perez.
As the justices debated, Perez sat quietly in the ornate courtroom. He later said he was impressed by the "lovely building" and grateful that all nine justices were engaged.
"It felt to me that they really listened well to the lawyers. I appreciated that," he said in a statement to USA TODAY. "I want to win and hope that others like me get interpreters."