Incarcerated students in the American Southeast who have special educational needs won an important ruling this week in a federal appeals court, children’s lawyers said Thursday.
The decision marks the first time the 11th Circuit, whose rulings apply in Georgia, Alabama and Florida, has established that youth with disabilities can sue as a group, or “class,” under federal law, according to a statement by the children’s attorneys.
The decision arises from a case out of DeKalb County, a suburban area near Atlanta, in which District Judge Thomas Thrasher ruled that the case could proceed as a class action. The 11th Circuit agreed.
In November, Thrasher gave a preliminary green light to a negotiated settlement under which the DeKalb County School District and its superintendent agreed to develop a system for delivering special education services to eligible students.
About 40% of incarcerated young adults ages 22 and younger in the DeKalb County Jail are eligible for the services under federal law, but Sheriff Melody Maddox, who was named as one of the defendants in the suit, had contended that it was not her job as jail administrator to ensure that kids got their special education services. The judge declined to dismiss the sheriff from the case.
The case, titled T.H., et al. v DeKalb County School District, et al., was filed in 2019 by Children’s Rights, Bondurant Mixson & Elmore and the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory University School of Law.
“We are very pleased that the court’s decision affirms our ability to proceed as a class action,” said Christina Wilson Remlin, lead counsel at Children’s Rights. “This decision allows us to represent not just our clients but the hundreds of other students like them who pass through the DeKalb County Jail each year and have a right to special education.”
“We have already begun to see special education services put in place for the named plaintiffs we represent, bringing them the joy of learning and hope for a better future,” said Randee Waldman, director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory University School of Law. “The court’s decision to affirm the class brings that hope to all eligible incarcerated students who we now officially represent.”