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CA Supreme Court Rules on Responsibility of Providing Services to Incarcerated Special Ed Students

by Leah Smith

On Friday December 12, The California Supreme Court issued a decision in the case Garcia v. Los Angeles School District (12/12/13, No. S199639, 9th Cir. No. 10-55879). The issue in the case was whether Education Code Section 56041 governs the educational agency responsible for providing special education to incarcerated students between the ages of 18-22 who are eligible for special education services. Ed Code Section 596041 assigns responsibility for special ed and related services for students between the ages of 18-22 to the district where the student’s parents reside. The court unanimously held that Section 56041 also governs the provision of special ed to qualifying individuals past the age of majority incarcerated in a county jail.  That means that the district where the incarcerated student’s parents reside is responsible for providing the student’s special ed program during the time the student is incarcerated in the county jail.

The court reasoned that although section 56041 does not by its terms specifically address county jail inmates, “the statutory language is broad enough to encompass special education programs for eligible county jail inmates between the ages of 18 and 22 years, and no other statute explicitly assigns responsibility for the provision of special education to such individuals.”

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a student is eligible to continue to receive special education services until he reaches the age of 22, even if incarcerated, so long as he has not graduated from high school with a regular high school diploma.  The IDEA leaves it up to states to determine which public agency is responsible for the provision of those services.

There is a statute specifically addressing local education agency funding responsibility for special ed eligible students under the age of 18 who are involved in the juvenile court system.  The county office of education is responsible for providing, or contracting with a local school district to provide, special education to youth incarcerated in the juvenile detention facilities within that county office’s jurisdiction. (See Ed Code Sections 48645.2, 56150)

The court noted that its application of Ed Code Section 56041 to incarcerated special education students between the ages of 18-22 is consistent with the general state education policy of assigning funding responsibility for a student’s compulsory public education to the school district in which the pupil’s parent resides.  The court further justified on public policy grounds that “this interpretation protects a local educational agency serving the geographic area in which a heavily populated county jail like the Los Angeles County jail is located from becoming overwhelmed by the financial responsibility for educating eligible young adult inmates whose parents reside in other districts.”

TAKE-AWAY: For special ed students ages 18-22 who are incarcerated in county jail, Ed Code 56041 assigns the responsibility of providing special ed and related services to the District where the student’s parents reside rather than the district where the jail is located.

Leah Smith is an associate in the Oakland office of Garcia, Hernandez, Sawhney & Bermudez, LLP. She specializes in Education law, negotiations and special education matters.