Justice Department Settles with Florida School District to Protect Students with Disabilities
August, 3, 2021: The Justice Department announced today a settlement agreement with Florida's Volusia County School District (VCS) to address the district's systemic and discriminatory practices that punish students with disabilities for their disability-related behavior and deny them equal access to VCS's programs and services.
The department conducted an investigation under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) after the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Middle District of Florida received a complaint from a local legal aid organization on behalf of several students, many of whom have Autism Spectrum Disorder. The complaint alleged that VCS unnecessarily excluded students with disabilities from the school's education programs and services by regularly: (1) requiring parents or guardians to pick up their children with disabilities from school or to keep them home; (2) disciplining students for behavior resulting from their disability; and (3) engaging with law enforcement to remove students with disabilities, one as young as kindergarten age, from school.
The department's investigation substantiated the allegations in the complaint, confirming that VCS had excluded students with disabilities from its programs and services through unnecessary removals from the classroom. It also found that VCS staff often failed to implement necessary behavioral supports and lacked training on how to properly respond to students' disability-related behavior. These issues led to the exclusion of students with disabilities from VCS's programs and services and, at times, resulted in calls to law enforcement to remove students with disabilities from school, including through the misuse of Florida's Baker Act procedures. The Baker Act permits the involuntary admission of a person with a mental illness to a psychiatric facility for up to 72 hours if certain criteria are met.
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According to the US Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, Parent and Educator Resource Guide to Section 504 in Public Elementary and Secondary Schools, "Public school students with disabilities have the right to be free from discrimination based on disability; are entitled to an equal opportunity regardless of disability; and have the right to aids, benefits, or services, equal to and as effective as those provided to students without disabilities 115 34 C.F.R. § 104.4(b)(1)(ii), (iii).
Similarly, if a school repeatedly sends a student with a disability home early, in response to her disruptive behavior in class, but does not do so for her non-disabled peers who engage in similar behavior, the different treatment would be unlawful 120 34 C.F.R. § 104.4(a)-(b). This fact scenario would also raise FAPE concerns if the student is not able to receive the services outlined in her IEP or Section 504 plan because she is repeatedly sent home early. This determination would have to be made on a case-by-case basis depending on the particular facts and circumstances."