(January 16, 2013) A school district does not have an obligation to provide services to an ADHD child enrolled in a private religious school under current federal disability-rights law.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit held that Baltimore City Public Schools had no obligation to provided special education services under Section 504 to an 8th grade ADHD student who attended a private Jewish school in Maryland.
D.L., the student around whom the law suit swirled, was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety as a fifth grade student in 2007. Two years later, Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners (BCBSC) determined that while D.L. did not qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Educational Act (IDEA), he was eligible under Section 504. Upon making this determination though, BCBSC notified D.L.’s parents that it could not provide the student services unless D.L. was enrolled in one of its schools. Since Maryland is a state that does not allow dual enrollment in a private and public school, D.L. would have to withdraw from his Yeshiva and enroll at the local public school.
D.L.’s parents challenged this decision, arguing that Section 504 creates an affirmative duty for school districts to provide services to eligible students enrolled in private schools. The parents’ arguments failed before a hearing officer so they filed suit in the United States District Court of Maryland. BCBSC filed a motion for summary judgment (a motion which basically says that even if D.L.’s parents were to prove all the facts they assert, they would still lose the case as a matter of law) and the parents filed a motion for partial summary judgment. The lower court granted BCBSC’s summary judgment motion and denied the parent’s partial summary judgment motion. The parents filed an appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
In the case, D.L. v. Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, the parents argued two main points: 1) that Section 504 regulation mandate that BCBSC provide D.L. with a free and appropriate education (FAPE), and 2) that BCBSC’s requirement that the family enroll D.L. in a public school violates their constitutional rights under the First Amendment’s Freedom of Religion clause.
With regard to the first contention, the court recognized that the plain language of Section 504 leaves unclear whether public schools are required to provide services to students enrolled in private schools. 34 C.F.R. § 104.33(a) states in relevant part that districts must “provide each Section 504 eligible student within its jurisdiction with a [FAPE].” The parents contend this language means that public schools have a greater obligation that simply making such education available.
The court reasoned that while the plain language is ambiguous, that further clarification in Appendix A of the regulations where it states in relevant part, “[i]f . . . a recipient offers adequate services and if alternate placement is chosen by a student’s parent or guardian, the recipient need not assume the cost of the outside services.” In looking at this, the court noted that while this shows that a district need not pay for services obtained outside the public school, it leaves open the question of whether such services can be obtained from the school.
Here, the court relied upon a clarification letter by the Department of Education entitled OCR Response to Veir Inquire Re: Various Matters which offers a direct clarification of the disputed regulation. The court noted that where a regulation is ambiguous, courts must grant deference to an agency’s interpretation of its own regulation. In the Vier letter, the DOE stated that “[w]here a district has offered an appropriate education, a district is not responsible under Section 504, for the provision of educational services to students not enrolled in the public education program based on the personal choice of the parent or guardian.” The court applied this language to hold that BCBSC had no responsibility to provide services to D.L. in his private school placement.
In reaching its holding, the court also rejected the parents’ arguments that Section 504’s language should be interpreted broadly since it is a remedial statute. While noting that turth of the parent’s contention that remedial statutes should be broadly construed, the court noted,
“The purpose of Section 504 does not, however, extend as far as Appellants [parents] assert that it should. Section 504 and its implementing regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, not on the basis of school choice.”
The court next tackled the First Amendment issues raised by the suit. The parents’ suit tried to persuade the court that the Supreme Court’s rulings in Pierce, 268 U.S. 510, and Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, show that requiring D.L. to attend Baltimore public schools was a violation of his First Amendment rights.
The court easily distinguished these cases in that both involved parents being charged under criminal statutes for failure to educate their children in public schools. Here, the parents face no such sanctions and retain free choice as to where their child go to school. The issue was one of payment of services. While it is true that the parents would need to pay additional services that would be free were they to attend public schools, such increased economic burden does not meet the standard of a First Amendment violation. The court noted, “The Supreme Court has explained that a statute does not violate the Free Exercise Clause [First Amendment] merely because it causes economic disadvantage on individuals who choose to practice their religion in a specific manner.