G.T. v. Kanawha County Schools
January 27, 2020 – The Bazelon Center and other advocates represent The Arc of West Virginia and parents of an autistic child in a class action in federal court in Charleston, West Virginia, alleging widespread failures by Kanawha County Schools (KCS) to educate children with disabilities, including autism, intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health issues, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The class action complaint asserts that KCS—the public school district serving the Charleston metro area—has failed to provide behavioral supports to students with disabilities and is instead punishing them by sending them home instead of educating them. Attorneys for The Arc of West Virginia and the parents—the Bazelon Center, Disability Rights of West Virginia, Mountain State Justice, The Arc of the United States, and the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP—allege that KCS has violated federal laws protecting students with disabilities.
Data from the West Virginia Department of Education shows that over 1,000 children with disabilities enrolled in KCS were removed from their classrooms during the 2018-2019 school year after their schools suspended them. This number does not include all of the additional students with disability-related behaviors whose schools asked their parents to take children out of the school before the end of the school day, or to keep them at home, without formally suspending them. It also does not include students with disabilities who were expelled from school for their behavior; those who were separated unnecessarily from mainstream classrooms and moved to segregated classrooms where they interact only with other students with disabilities and receive an inferior education; or those who were placed on “homebound” status where they may receive only a few hours of tutoring each week. These students are not receiving critical behavioral supports that can help them be successful in the general education classroom with their classmates without disabilities.
The complaint alleges that KCS is: 1) violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by failing to provide children with disabilities with the special education they need to receive a “free appropriate public education” in the least restrictive environment; and 2) violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (Section 504), and the West Virginia Human Rights Act by failing to educate children with disabilities in the most integrated setting appropriate to their needs, and denying them equal educational opportunity.
In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court held unanimously in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1 that the “IDEA demands more.” Specifically, the Court provided a new and more demanding standard for what schools must do to adequately educate students with disabilities, requiring that school districts provide students with disabilities the opportunity to meet “challenging objectives” with “appropriately ambitious” special education. For virtually all children, this means receiving instruction and services in the general education classroom, with appropriate supports, alongside students without disabilities. In addition, in 1999, in Olmstead v. L.C., the Court held that the ADA prohibits the needless isolation or segregation of people with disabilities. The ADA applies to public schools, which cannot unnecessarily segregate students with disabilities, nor deny them equal opportunities.