A.J. v. CESAR CHAVEZ
PUBLIC CHARTER SCHOOLS et al
The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, together with partners University Legal Services and Crowell & Moring, LLP, filed an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) due process complaint with the D.C. Student Hearing Office against Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools (Chavez) and the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS).
Our investigation found that Chavez and DCPS unlawfully used discipline to address the behaviors of a sixth-grade student with mental health needs, culminating in the unlawful expulsion of the student due to behaviors that were a manifestation of his disability. Furthermore, Chavez and DCPS failed to provide the student with necessary effective behavioral interventions so that he could receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE), and unlawfully excluded the student’s parent and non-school providers, such as his psychiatrist, from meetings about what services were appropriate.
DCPS argued during the proceedings that it and the Student Hearing Office do not have the authority to return the student to the charter school following his expulsion. However, under D.C. law, DCPS is responsible for Chavez’ compliance with the IDEA. The Hearing Officer rejected DCPS’ argument, ruling after two day-long hearings that Chavez and DCPS had unlawfully disciplined and expelled the student. The Hearing Officer ordered that the student be returned to Chavez and provided with compensatory education and a behavioral consultant to train school staff to implement effective behavioral interventions.
However, DCPS and Chavez refused to implement the Hearing Officer’s order returning A.J. to Chavez. We filed a Motion for a Preliminary Injunction in the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia pursuant to the Consent Decree in Blackman/Jones, and argued before a Special Master that Chavez must implement the Hearing Officer’s order, and that DCPS has a separate obligation under local and federal law to ensure that DCPS charter schools, like Chavez, comply with the IDEA and IDEA Hearing Officer orders. The Special Master issued a Preliminary Action directing that A.J. be allowed to re-enroll at Chavez for the 2013-14 school year, but DCPS and Chavez made clear that they did not intend to comply. Finally, with the first day of the 2013-14 school year fast approaching, we filed a motion seeking emergency relief returning A.J. to Chavez. Finding that we met the standards for a preliminary injunction, the Judge issued an order returning A.J. to Chavez.
Due to the legal advocacy of the Bazelon Center and its partners, the student is able to remain in an integrated educational setting where he can learn alongside non-disabled peers. The case also sends the important message that all public schools — including charter schools — must support children with mental health needs to succeed in school, as required under the IDEA.