Settlement ends segregation of institutionalized youth

David Carlson
Associate Director of Legal Advocacy

A settlement reached on behalf of a number of Bremerton School District students moves their classroom placement to the local high school, as opposed to institutional grounds.

At issue was whether or not students with developmental disabilities would be schooled in community schools, or at state-run institutions for people with developmental disabilities known as residential habilitation centers, or RHCs.

In the winter of 2006, the Bremerton School District informed the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD) that students who reside at the RHC Frances Haddon Morgan Center (FHMC) would no longer be allowed to go to classes at the local school they had been attending. While DDD had previously rented a classroom on the grounds of the Bremerton School District for these students, the district cited it no longer had room to provide class space. A decision was made to open a classroom in an unused building on the grounds of FHMC.

Parents and students were not notified of this plan, despite several months of negotiation between FHMC and the Bremerton School District.

Disability Rights Washington (DRW) found out about the plan to exclude the students from the local school district, when an attorney and investigator were at FHMC doing regular monitoring activities, as authorized by the federal laws that established protection and advocacy systems like DRW. Subsequent investigation prompted DRW to engage the school district and DDD in discussions to prevent unnecessary segregation. Both DDD and the Bermerton School District declined any invitation to fix the problem, stating the other party was responsible.

Under federal law, all students have the right to a free, appropriate, public education in the least restrictive environment based on their individual needs. DRW understood that preventing a group of students from attending the local school district, based only upon where they receive residential services, was not legal. A special education expert was contacted and confirmed that a move like the one proposed would lead to several distinctly different types of harm and should be avoided.

Since the school district and the state would not even talk about ways to avoid this harmful move, DRW filed a lawsuit in state court on behalf of the students against DSHS, the Bremerton School District, and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Before the court could rule on DRW's motion to prevent movement of the students' classroom, the defendants had the case removed to federal court.

The federal court denied DRW's request to keep the students' class on school grounds. The federal district court then dismissed the case for failure to state a claim. (Although, the court only focused on one of seven different claims raised by raised by DRW.)

DRW appealed this decision by taking the case to the Ninth Circuit. Recognizing the importance of this case, a lawyer at a national firm in Washington D.C. offered to co-counsel on the appeal and another national firm based in San Francisco volunteered to write an amicus brief for the National Disability Rights Network to support the students in this case. After the students' brief and the amicus brief were filed in the Ninth Circuit, the defendants agreed to settle the case.

The defendants agreed to create additional classroom space on the grounds of the local high school, by placing a new portable there. They stated there was no assumption that FHMC students would attend classes in the portable; but that the portable would free space to allow the students to return to the local district schools. However, since signing the agreement, the defendants have indicated they will use the portable for special education classes.

Additionally, the defendants agreed students who live at FHMC will be treated as individuals, and not grouped in the same classroom, as they had been before, just because they live at the same institution.

As often happens when a plaintiff prevails in civil rights cases, the students' attorney fees and other costs were paid for through the settlement agreement.

DRW cited the settlement as a great resolution for this particular case; but highlighted needed scrutiny of the common practice of exclusive portable class settings for students with disabilities.

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