Lawyers for students in the D.C. Jail say the city is violating the federal education law that protects students with disabilities.
A federal judge ordered the District on Wednesday to provide special education services to students incarcerated at the D.C. Jail.
Students in the jail's Inspiring Youth Program must start receiving the services within 15 days, according to a preliminary injunction issued by U.S. District Court Judge Carl J. Nichols. Attorneys for the students filed a class action lawsuit in April accusing the city of violating federal law by failing to provide specialized instruction to students with disabilities during the public health crisis.
The order indicates the students have a high likelihood of proving their case and provides an immediate solution as the lawsuit makes its way through the court.
"The court has told the District of Columbia pretty clearly that its failure to teach these students during the pandemic must cease," said Zenia Sanchez Fuentes, one of the attorneys representing the students.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which oversees federal special education mandates in the District, declined to comment, citing the pending litigation.
The Inspiring Youth Program, an alternative high school inside the jail that educates students between 18 and 22 years old, is operated by D.C. Public Schools.
All 40 students enrolled in the program have an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, a personalized legal document for students with disabilities that spell out services they must receive.
But students enrolled in the program have mainly received paper packets of work or been given limited access to tablets uploaded with digital versions of the packets during the pandemic, according to the lawsuit.
The incarcerated youth say they are expected to complete assignments without instruction or communication from teachers and do not receive feedback except for progress reports or final grades at the end of each term.
One student, an 18-year-old male in the 12th grade, said he received a tablet for distance learning. But he had to hold the tablet through a narrow slot in his cell to download materials because the wireless signal was not strong enough, the lawsuit says.
The 12th grade student, who has been diagnosed with several disabilities including ADHD and depression, is entitled to 26.5 hours of specialized instruction each week and two hours of behavioral support services a month, according to court documents.
One administrator conceded that students in the Inspiring Youth Program did not receive any teacher-led instruction for about nine months starting March 13, 2020, according to court documents.
Kaitlin Banner, another attorney representing the students, said the city has started providing limited special education instruction to students in person. But Banner, who works for the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said students have not received their full services.
She called the decision "a really important first step in holding the District accountable."
"The court made it very clear the COVID pandemic does not excuse their compliance with important federal civil rights laws," Banner said.
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.