Advocating for Students with Disabilities

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and other US federal laws, students with disabilities are ensured the right to a free public education that is tailored to their individual needs. To meet these qualifications, schools must provide students with specialized instruction and support where necessary, with the goal of preparing students for “further education, employment, and independent living,” according to the IDEA.

Following an extended investigation, our lawyers and their co-counsel discovered that West Virginia’s Kanawha County School District (KCS) — the largest school district in the state — was failing to meet federal qualifications for a free, appropriate public education. Specifically, KCS was repeatedly pushing students with disabilities out of their general education classrooms instead of providing them with effective behavioral supports.

In response, our lawyers partnered with The Arc of the United States, the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Mountain State Justice, and Disability Rights West Virginia to file a class action complaint against KCS in 2020. The West Virginia District Court denied the school district's motion to dismiss, with the judge writing, “These allegations are structural in nature, and … demonstrate the inadequacy of the relief available through due process complaints.”

When given the right type of instruction, access, and support, students with disabilities are usually able to meet the same educational standards as students without disabilities.

During the discovery process, our lawyers found several troubling incidents. For example, one principal told the father of one of our plaintiffs that his fourth-grade son with Down Syndrome and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) could not be educated with neurotypical peers because he was like “a blind person with no arms or legs who wanted to drive. Although [he] had the desire to drive, it was not possible and it would never happen.” The principal also told this student's father that the student “doesn't belong here.” In another instance, a third-grade student with autism was suspended for 10 days simply because he ran out of school crying when his father left the building.

According to KCS’s own data, KCS students with disabilities are suspended at significantly higher rates — nearly double — than their peers without disabilities. This number fails to include the full range of related situations, such as when schools asked parents to take children with disability-related behaviors out of school before the end of the day or instances in which students were placed on “homebound” status, where they may receive only a few hours of tutoring each week.

Students were not receiving critical behavioral supports that can help them be successful in general education classrooms with their classmates. When given the right type of instruction, access, and support, students with disabilities are usually able to meet the same educational standards as students without disabilities. Additionally, research has shown that disciplinary measures, such as suspension and expulsion, are not effective solutions in reducing inappropriate classroom behaviors for students with disabilities — in fact, prolonged time out of the classroom has been shown to increase the likelihood of continued negative educational outcomes.

In August 2021, the team was awarded class certification. Shortly thereafter, KCS appealed the district court’s ruling. The parties submitted competing briefs, and, in October 2022, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral argument on whether the district court’s grant of class certification should stand. We are currently awaiting the Fourth Circuit’s ruling, which we expect in 2023, and then hope to continue litigating on behalf of a class of students in need.