Former Students Offered Make-Up Special Education Services
A federal judge has ruled that some 1,800 special-education students who did not earn a high school diploma before they aged out of Hawaii’s public school system at 20 years old are entitled to free educational services to make up for the two years they were denied schooling as allowed under U.S. law.
The additional services would not involve sending the students back to high school, but will include such transitional services as job training, college courses and independent life skills training, according to attorneys for the plaintiffs.
The ruling stems from a 2010 class-action suit against the Hawaii Department of Education over a state law enacted that year that cut off public education at age 20.
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Students represented by the Hawaii Disability Rights Center and Honolulu firm Alston Hunt Floyd & Ing challenged the law, arguing that the state allows students without disabilities who are older than 20 to complete secondary education programs under the state-run Community Schools for Adults.
A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel last year found that Hawaii’s law banning students older than 20 from public schools “runs afoul” of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which entitles children with disabilities to a free appropriate public education until they turn 22.
“In Hawaii … nondisabled students between the ages of 20 and 22 can pursue the diplomas that eluded them in high school, but students with special needs are simply out of luck,” the appeals court said.
The case was sent back to federal court in Hawaii to determine how to implement the decision.
U.S. District Chief Judge Susan Oki Mollway last month ruled that the students covered by the class-action lawsuit “should receive compensatory services to make up for the services missed as a result of that improper determination of eligibility.”
Mollway ordered the state’s Department of Education to provide attorneys for the plaintiffs the names of every potential class member along with his or her last known address.
The Hawaii DOE has identified 1,800 students who may be eligible for additional services. These former students would have been between the ages of 20 and 22 between 2010 and this year.
Letters were sent this week by attorneys for the plaintiffs to 1,424 young adults for whom the Department of Education provided addresses, but there are at least 350 former students whose addresses are unknown.
“We want to make a particular effort to try to reach these people because they’re not going to get one of these letters,” Hawaii Disability Rights Center Executive Director Louis Erteschik said. “So for those of you out there who may know students who fit within that age range, we hope that you will encourage them to contact us. What we’re doing today is making an attempt to let them know that there’s an opportunity that they have to come back and receive some education.”
Erteschik said the make-up services for eligible young adults will be “a very individualized, case-by-case remedy tailored to the needs of each student.”
Attorney Paul Alston said, “We’re talking about a population that the DOE has never served, and trying to provide them not classroom education, but work education, life education and to help them get skills so that they can function as adults. If people respond to these letters, we’ll be working to get them into community-based programs where they can get all the skills.”
Hawaii Department of Education spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz said the department does not have an estimate of how much it will cost to provide these services but said the DOE “remains committed to providing compensatory education to those individuals who are entitled to such services.”
Special-education students account for about 10 percent of Hawaii’s public school population, or 19,700 students. About one-fifth of the department’s operation budget, or $362 million, was spent on special education last school year.
Debbie Kobayakawa said the transition services required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to help students with disabilities prepare for life after high school were key for her family.
Her son Ian, who aged out of high school at age 20 in 2010, spent the last year and a half of high school job training at a local Safeway grocery store, where he still works as a courtesy clerk.
“He does well, but he has a lot of communication issues still, particularly social stuff,” Kobayakawa said, adding that he requires a one-on-one job coach.
“If he had had another year or two of educational services, he may not need that,” she said.
She encouraged parents whose children may be eligible for additional services to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Parents don’t understand that these transition services are their kids’ lives,” she said. “Once they leave, that’s it, they’re done. Now they have no more further educational training.”
Kobayakawa said as soon as she heard about the lawsuit ruling, she put in a request for compensatory education for Ian, who has intellectual disability, autism, is legally blind and hearing-impaired.
“I put in simply because I do believe my son should be compensated,” she said. “He doesn’t belong on a school campus, he’s 24 years old … but I can use those to buy services that aren’t available to me under the array of services that we access through the Developmental Disabilities Division (under the state Department of Health). He accesses a lot of services … but there’s still things I can’t get for him.”