The facts are so stacked against a sheriff in metro Atlanta, Georgia, that there’s no need for a lengthy, expensive trial, according to a federal judge: The DeKalb County sheriff violated the educational rights of disabled students locked up in the county’s adult jail, which is run by the sheriff.
The rather unusual “summary judgment” in favor of the students marks the first time an 11th Circuit judge has ruled that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act entitles students with disabilities to special education and related services when they’re in adult jails, according to the youths’ attorneys, led by the national nonprofit law firm Children’s Rights.
Many states seem to have already accepted their educational responsibilities to these students and have begun to house youth destined for adult facilities in juvenile settings through age 18 to avoid problems such as lack of education. The DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office had argued that it was not in the business of seeing to the proper education of incarcerated students aged 17 to 21.
The case, titled T.H. v. DeKalb County School District, was filed in 2019. In addition to Children’s Rights, it is being litigated by the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory University School of Law, the Bondurant Mixson & Elmore law firm and Hecht Walker.
They argued that incarcerated students aged 17 to 21 who have a qualifying disability have a right to special education services and accommodations under the IDEA and Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Named in the suit were the DeKalb County School District, the Georgia Department of Education, and the sheriff, Melody M. Maddox.
The school district and the state Education Department settled earlier, and the court’s judgment against the sheriff removes the last barrier to ramping up educational and related services to incarcerated students with disabilities who live in adult facilities.
In a news release, Children’s Rights said that for the past decade, hundreds of disabled students locked up in the DeKalb County jail have been deprived of their rights. These are disproportionately Black youth who’ve been caught in the “school to prison pipeline.” While 32% of Georgia residents are Black, 51% of the jail population and 60% of the prison population is Black, it said.
“As a product of the DeKalb County School system myself, I am proud of this victory for our clients who are eager to learn while in the jail. Education for incarcerated people with disabilities is legally required, and studies have shown that participation in these programs helps decrease recidivism and poverty upon release,” said Christina Remlin, lead counsel at Children’s Rights, in a statement.
The judge, Thomas W. Thrash Jr., did not find that Sheriff Maddox discriminated against the students on the basis of their disabilities. Rather, he said her arguments against ensuring that the kids got their educational services were based on reasonable concerns about the ability to do so safely and practically in the adult setting of a jail.