PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania denies some students with disabilities up to a year of federally guaranteed education, a lawsuit filed this month on behalf of a Lower Merion student says.

Federal law entitles students with disabilities the right to an education until they earn a regular high school diploma or turn 22. But Pennsylvania forces students to graduate at the end of the school year when they turn 21 — depriving some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens of a year of services that could help them work toward educational and life goals, the suit says.

The complaint, filed against the Pennsylvania Department of Education in federal court by attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center and Berney & Sang, was brought on behalf of a 19-year-old Lower Merion student with multiple disabilities but also asks that the court grant class-action status. The young man, known only as A.P. in legal documents, won’t turn 22 until February 2026, but under current state policy would be forced to graduate in June 2025.

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A.P. and his parents want a judge to force Pennsylvania to alter its policy, as several other states have been compelled to do in recent years.

The state’s policy “unlawfully deprives students with disabilities of up to a year of a (free and appropriate public education) at a critical juncture of their lives, denying them essential services such as job readiness training, functional math and literacy instruction, and the acquisition of daily living skills such as using public transportation, shopping for groceries, or managing a home,” the lawsuit reads. “The Age-Out Policy also harms the very students most in need of these services: students with significant disabilities who are more likely to remain in school instead of earning a regular high school diploma, and who will require coordinated, comprehensive supports to successfully transition to adult life.”

A spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Education said she could not comment on pending litigation. But, Casey Smith said, the department “is committed to ensuring that every student receives a high-quality education and working with parents to meet the needs of students with disabilities.”

Lisa Lightner works as an advocate for parents of children with special needs — including her own son, a student with disabilities who attends a Chester County public school. Her son is 17, but Lightner knows he will need every minute of the public education the law guarantees him.

“My son has still not even regained the skills that he lost during the pandemic,” said Lightner. “So to lose a year of school at a crucial time is so tough.”

Her son likely can’t work and will need services from a day program for adults with disabilities after he graduates.

“The adult services have long waitlists, and even if parents can afford to privately fund those for their child, there’s not even enough providers out there,” said Lightner. “Just having that extra year of skill development and practice is important. This is a segment of the population that often gets overlooked.”

About 17,000 Pennsylvania students between the ages of 18 and 21 receive special education services annually. Roughly 300 of them are 21.

The lawsuit was inspired by a similar case in Connecticut, decided in 2020, that forced a change. Similar suits have forced changes in Hawaii and Rhode Island.

Other states have opened the door, said Caroline Ramsey, a Public Interest Law Center lawyer representing A.P. and other Pennsylvania students in the same position: Pennsylvania and New Jersey passed laws granting students with special needs an extra year of high school eligibility to make up for time lost during the pandemic and virtual schooling. Both states’ extensions were time-limited, though.

“This isn’t a brand-new idea,” Ramsey.

Though A.P.’s parents are asking a judge to intervene, “it doesn’t take a court to change this,” said Claudia De Palma, another Public Interest Law Center lawyer on the case. “This is something the Pennsylvania Department of Education has the authority to change if and when they look at this and realize what the law says.”

© 2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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