Special Ed Families Can Sue Schools for Damages: What the new Supreme Court ruling means for special education families and school districts

For years, Miguel Perez sat in his classes at a small school in Michigan in a world of silence. His teachers talked and lectured, but he had no idea what they were saying. Miguel is deaf and wasn’t given the tools to understand the outside world. 

Because their son received straight As and was on the honor roll, Miguel’s parents, who don’t speak English, were unaware there was a problem until it was time to graduate from high school. Then, Miguel was provided with a “certificate of achievement” rather than a diploma. Subsequent evaluations showed that Miguel read at a third grade level, even though he didn’t have any other disabilities. He did not know sign language at all and couldn’t communicate with anyone, because the school district had not provided him with that education. 

After his family’s first lawsuit, the school district gave Miguel some compensatory education, but the family also wanted to sue the district for damages. Those years of lost education would have a lifelong impact, their lawyers argued. Yesterday, in an unanimous decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Miguel and his parents. They will win unspecified damages from their school district. 

This case sets an important precedent. If Miguel can sue for damages, every special education student, who failed to receive crucial therapy or educational instruction, can sue for damages. This case is the most significant education decision by the courts in years. Schools will be forced to deal with the special education problem or face bankruptcy.

Read more at my newsletter, The Great Leap


23 thoughts on “Special Ed Families Can Sue Schools for Damages: What the new Supreme Court ruling means for special education families and school districts

  1. The case allows students and families to sue for compensatory damages under the ADA, rather than applying the rules under IDEA (which, I think, do not include the same kind of compensatory claims). Both IDEA/ADA legal actions can have legal fees awarded at the end of the case, but ADA also pays for assessments (which the IDEA statute has been interpreted to not cover). The case does substantially change the landscape for these types of suits, but I don’t know how these kinds of cases fare under ADA. There are caps on compensatory damages under ADA, but not on “back pay” (which, in a school might include lost services? but, I’m not sure, since the issue was IDEA/ADA rules).

    However, I am dubious of hopes that individual lawsuits can produce significant systemic change (especially the kind that requires resources). Even if there are large awards to individual students who bring cases, settlements of even tens of millions of dollars just become a cost on the system. New York, for example, has apparently spends 170,000,000/year on police settlements. Has that changed how the police there operate?

    And bankrupting systems is the equivalent of “defunding the police”. Will something better grow from the ashes? New Orleans remains a continuing example (growing from the ashes of Katrina) but I don’t think the NOLA record on students with disabilities is good, even while there are arguments that some outcomes are better than before.


  2. Also, though it is not your obligation to write about something because someone has to, the eduwonk article was not a replacement for the article you might have written on DeBoer’s column. The eduwonk article was written in education wonkery — “steel manning”? the reference to New Orleans with the assumption that dropping that reference is meaningful (and I do follow the literature)? It wasn’t written to the knowledgeable but not educational wonk audience (which is the sweet spot I look to you for on education).

    But, it is one of my missions in life to tell every woman that just because it needs to be done doesn’t mean you need to do it, so no complaints about your decision making! Just disappointment that Eduwong didn’t right the article I wanted to see in response.


    1. DeBoer’s article was basically a left-wing Charles Murray book. IQ is destiny. If I responded to DeBoer’s article, it would turn into some old fashioned blog war. We’ve disagreed before and I don’t really want to get into it with him.


  3. A very good reason.

    I think it is important to make the argument that people’s intrinsic worth and flourishing does not depend on their ability to do a particular task (be it academic analysis, coding, lifting a large object, or hitting a baseball really hard). But DeBoer is not the ally for that argument.


    1. Yeah, for any particular individual, there’s a range of possible outcomes, and what you do with them moves the needle in one direction or the other direction.


  4. It’s possible that one outcome will be that school districts will be much more careful as to what they promise in IEP’s. Although this student’s IEP may not even have stated that he needed instruction in sign language (and I might add instruction in other methods of communicating that are helpful for deaf people, such as CART, TTY, etc).

    I am somewhat baffled as to why this student wasn’t enrolled in a school for the deaf at an early age. For the profoundly deaf child that is really the best option.


    1. I am somewhat baffled as to why this student wasn’t enrolled in a school for the deaf at an early age.

      Well, Texas.


  5. I was just reading the first paragraph to my teenage son and telling him that if a private business did that sort of thing, it would be considered fraud.


  6. I’d say that one pragmatic response to this will be the acceleration of middle-class flight from the public school system.
    We’ve already seen this in response to Covid – but it will increase.

    Reality is: school budgets are not going to get bigger.
    Reality is: federal assistance is going to be too little, too late.
    Reality is: special education is expensive.
    Reality is: funding something even close to equality is going to diminish the resources that schools can spend on neurotypical kids.

    Middle-class parents of neurotypical kids are going to look at this, and simply opt out.

    It may not be kind. It may not be fair. But I think it’s reality. And, in today’s job market, it’s better by far for families to fund private primary and high-school education to a high level, than waste tens of thousands of dollars on a college education, which is increasingly unlikely to pay for itself.

    And, they will not vote for budgetary increases for a school system which they don’t use and don’t value, and don’t feel offers their kids anything.

    We’re going through a ‘quality of education’ debate here in NZ. We’ve had more than 2 decades of dropping school achievement statistics (on international measures like PISA). Kids are graduating with high-school qualifications, who are functionally illiterate and innumerate (as in can’t read a safety sign, or make change at McDonalds – we’re not talking about reading War and Peace or calculating ratios)
    The ‘inclusive’ model as failed, and failed miserably.
    Turns out that embedding highly disruptive kids (whether special needs or sociologically disadvantaged) into the classroom, simply destroys the education of the rest of the class.
    Turns out that pretending that little Johnny is learning at the same rate as his peers, doesn’t actually result in little Johnny learning anything. And means that the teacher is trying to teach kids with learning abilities from Grade 1 to Grade 8 in the same class. Not an effective learning environment for anyone. No, little Johnny doesn’t pick up how to read, just because the kids in his class are reading.
    Turns out that ever-larger class-sizes, and modern learning environments (4 classes in the same space with 4 teachers, co-teaching) – isn’t actually an effective learning environment for most kids, either (too noisy, can’t bond with an individual teacher, highly disruptive environment for anyone with any kind of learning disability or physical disability.)

    Everyone fails. [Of course, kids whose parents can afford tutoring, fail at a lesser rate – but even the top end of results are lower than they were 2 decades ago]
    Yes, there are still kids succeeding within the public school system, but these are kids which would succeed anywhere – the kind of self-starters who could teach themselves (and pretty much did during Covid).

    The highest achieving schools (apart from the totally private ones, and the ones in the closed-school-zone super-high wealth areas, which effectively are private), are the state-integrated ones – mostly religious schools, and almost all Catholic (there are a scattering of other religions). They’re part-funded by the state, and part-funded by families. They’re required to teach the state curriculum, but can have their own enrolment and discipline standards, and expectations of the students. It makes a difference. Just how much of a difference is becoming obvious to everyone except the education bureaucrats.
    Note, these schools do enrol high-functioning special needs kids – they don’t exclude them all. But they do expect them to be able to function within a classroom. And, many of them, especially on the high-functioning autism spectrum do very well, in a more disciplined environment, where they know what is expected of them and of their peers – and the rules don’t change.
    Because they are much more attractive environments in which to teach (teachers can actually teach, rather than doing crowd control), they attract the best teachers, as well. The ones who are also abandoning the dysfunctional public school system, in droves.

    The debate is getting nasty. And people care. It’s our kids being sacrificed on the altars of educational ideology.

    We have one political party (with a decent chance of being in government at the end of this year – it’s going to be a really tight election between the right and left) which is advocating straight-up education vouchers; and allowing successful schools to ‘buy up’ failing public schools.

    Of course, none of this deals with the ‘what about’ kids. The ones coming from highly dysfunctional families, the ones with foetal-alcohol syndrome, the severely disabled, the kids who simply don’t want to be in the school system (and with families who don’t care either).
    My belief is that there needs to be a special school environment – differently targeted for each type of need – but the standard school is not the right place.


  7. Well the radical right (that includes a majority of the Spreme Court) have long wanted to dismantle the public school system so I am sure they can’t wait to rule on this case. Anything that could accelerate the decline of public schooling.

    Their decision (is there any doubt what it will be?) will have many awful consequences, many unforeseen or only partially understood at the moment. I think EB is correct when predicting even more anemic IEPs. That will be the least of it over time.

    I admit I did not read all of the links. Is there a right-wing group behind this? I find it hard to believe the parents are not receiving support from an outside group (in the same way, say that Rosa Parks and “Jane Roe” did). This smells like a test case.


    1. Ohio Mo wrote:

      “Anything that could accelerate the decline of public schooling.”

      It is time for the end of one-size-fits-all, because that never really worked.


    2. You made me want to check up on the affiliations of the attorneys: Perez was represented in Perez v Sturgis in the Supreme court by the Roman Martinez, Latham & Watkins; Ellen Marjorie Saideman, Law Office of Ellen Saideman;
      Marc Charmatz and Leah Weiderhorn, National Association of the Deaf Law Advocacy Center; Mitchell Sickon, Disability Rights Michigan.

      and, indeed Martinez is a Federalist Society member & significant contributor to Republicans (including Tom Cotton and Perdue Winred and others)

      Saideman has a few smaller contributions to local Democrats; the others don’t have visible contributions and are representatives of their organizations.


  8. Although I do believe that we are seeing increased backlash against public schools as a result of integration (of race as well as by disability and economics), the unanimous decision in this case suggests a potential technical reading of the laws involved (though, also, it’s possible that ideological biases against public schools and in favor of people with disabilities and expanding the right to use the courts of various judges plays a role).

    I think a reason to believe that that the case won’t have as significant an impact on the entire school system is that cases under the ADA are hard to win and the monetary damages capped. In this case, the school district argued that monetary damages wouldn’t be available, though the court did not decide on that issue, sending the case back to a trial court saying that the suit could go ahead, but not deciding on the issue.

    I do largely agree that giving one group of students at a school legal rights, and expanding legal rights that impact the entire school system will drive parents who have choices but little legal rights in the school system to leave and to be less supportive of money for schools.


  9. “The highest achieving schools (apart from the totally private ones, and the ones in the closed-school-zone super-high wealth areas, which effectively are private), are the state-integrated ones – mostly religious schools, and almost all Catholic (there are a scattering of other religions). They’re part-funded by the state, and part-funded by families.”

    Right now, choices parents have are limited by the lack this model, schools that are funded by a mix of private and public funding but retain their ability to make their own decisions. There are public funds that follow students to private schools, including religious ones (for example, deaf interpreters can be funded by public funds). There are vouchers (but, I believe these usually come with non-discrimination and other conditions). There are charters (which are publicly funded but also must follow charter rules established by the state, which would, I think preclude religious instruction). There are questionable relationships (for example, the relationship between the public school in Kiryas Joel — which serves special education students and the private Hasidic religious schools). But there’s no public/private funding model, which is common in many areas of former British colonial control.

    And, fully private schools, which would control their own admissions and student behavior policies are not required to provide IEPs (though they are required to be ADA/504 compliant). IEPs do follow students who are placed in a private school because the public school could not provide FAPE for that student, and the money can follow them, too. I don’t know what rules follow those placements — for example, could a student be placed in a religious school by the public school?


    1. Even with the Federal government setting some parameters (e.g., IDEA), each state has slightly different laws regarding public schools so there probably will be at least 50 different answers to your question (I don’t know about D.C.).

      Also worth remembering that public school systems are actually a kind of local government (hence them being described and controlled by their state’s constitution), their jurisdiction being the geographic boundaries of the school district, their governing body (school board) democratically elected by the voters residing in the district, their meeting and records open for public participation and review (with some restrictions to protect individual students’ privacy).

      This is why I bristle at AmyP’s dismissal of the public school. I’m somewhat of a nut for democracy (“The worst form of government except for all the others”) and don’t want to see an entire form and level of Democractic local government cavalierly dismissed and dismantled. That’s my say on my community you are taking away, without a glance back.

      There is also the related argument that public schools are where the citizenry is made, with the children of disparate groups sharing the same education and experience.


      1. Democratic should not be capitalized, sorry. I don’t know if that was spellcheck or muscle memory but it should start with a lower case “d.”


      2. As an immigrant who became American in the public school system (in Ohio, in fact), I do believe in all my heart that “public schools are where the citizenry is made, with the children of disparate groups sharing the same education and experience.” Breaking up our public spaces (as opposed to small populations avoiding them) is a road to division, even while we have battles about what our shared values are. I don’t think we can avoid that conversation by simply withdrawing from public spaces and hard questions.


  10. A response to your tweet on Matthew Desmond — he also had a long :New York Times magazine article

    I am also intrigued by the book, though I thought the article drifted into different topics in non-clear ways (again, a form of writing that I think you do better than most other people!)


Comments are closed.