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News / Northwest

WA schools must serve students with disabilities until 22, court rules

By Dahlia Bazzaz, The Seattle Times
Published: May 29, 2024, 7:36am

Washington students with disabilities are eligible to receive services from public schools until they turn 22, a federal appeals court ruled last week.

Current state law cuts off services to these students, who are often severely disabled, at the end of the school year that they turn 21. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals justices determined that this violates federal law governing education for students with disabilities. Their decision will overturn this law after a short waiting period.

A group of attorneys at Seattle-based law firms Cedar Law PLLC and Susman Godfrey LLP filed a suit in 2022 on behalf of students needing those extended services. Some would have been eligible for an additional year of schooling had their birthday fallen slightly later in the school year.

“These are kids who — despite the services (they’re receiving) — are unable to graduate,” said Ian Crosby, an attorney and partner at Susman Godfrey. “These are kids who need as much support for as long as they can get it.”

The state education department, the defendant in this case, does not plan to appeal the decision.

“We will be working with the Legislature to reconcile our state law which is now in conflict with a federal order,” said Katy Payne, a spokesperson for the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. “In the meantime … we are aiming to share guidance about next steps with school districts.”

Under the federal statute, disabled students are entitled to services through their 21st year and up until 22 if they live in states like Washington, which offer publicly funded basic education programs to nondisabled adults, such as GED programs.

The change in the law would only affect a relatively small number of students, likely in the hundreds, whose services are extended beyond high school. These services can include job training and life skills education, such as learning how to navigate public transportation.

Several other states have had to make the same changes to their law. Federal courts have made the same determination in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Hawaii. In 2021, Maine voluntarily increased its age cap from 20 to 22 after reviewing the ruling in the Rhode Island case. States like Michigan go above and beyond the federal law, setting their cap at 25.

Under this impending federal order, students would exit the system on their 22nd birthday. In the next Legislative session, lawmakers could extend the law even further by allowing students to complete the school year if their birthdays happen to fall in the middle.

As for the plaintiffs in the case? It’s yet to be determined how they might be compensated for the time they didn’t get in school. The federal district court will have to make that call.

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