Victory for Special Education Students in Federal Court

School districts must offer students with disabilities alternative summer programs when needed
Press Release

Victory for Special Education Students in Federal Court

A  teacher helping a young girl with a disability with her homework.

(Los Angeles, CA) - Under federal law, students with disabilities have long had the right to be educated with their typically developing peers in regular classrooms, with only limited exceptions. This principle of full inclusion requires that students be placed in the “least restrictive environment” appropriate to their needs. 

However, for decades, California law permitted school districts to ignore this rule during the summer. If a district did not offer a regular summer school program, students with disabilities were offered only segregated summer programs that provided no chance to interact with their non-disabled peers. 

Yesterday, Judge Consuelo Marshall of the United States District Court in Los Angeles, ruled that this discriminatory practice is illegal. When considering the summer program for a disabled student who is educated in an integrated setting during the regular school year, the district must explore options for an integrated summer program even if the district is not offering one.

“The Court’s decision strongly rejects a statewide policy that has resulted in thousands of students with disabilities being educated in segregated classes solely for reasons of administrative convenience,” said attorney David German of Vanaman German LLP.

The lawsuit was filed in 2020 on behalf of a student with Down syndrome, identified as M.C., who attended Los Angeles Unified School District. His learning needs were successfully supported in regular classrooms and he benefited greatly from exposure to the regular curriculum. M.C. qualified for extended school year classes to maintain his skills, but instead of addressing his individual needs, L.A. Unified refused to consider offering him anything but a segregated program. His mother appealed and the case eventually reached federal court.

Disability Rights California Attorney Melinda Bird explained, “This is an important victory that will affect thousands of special education students at Los Angeles Unified School District, where the case arose, but potentially every district in California, since this is a standard practice.” 

The school district and the California Department of Education, which were both defendants in the case, argued that the full inclusion requirement did not apply to programs offered in summer, and that it was allowable for the district to offer a program whose length and content were identical for all students regardless of how dramatically it differed from their individual programs during the school year. Judge Marshall rejected this position, finding both that the least restrictive environment requirement fully applied to summer school and also that failing to consider the length of program needed by individual students violated federal law.

“While many people would shrug it off saying, ‘it’s just summer school,’ I have long recognized the value of summer school to maintain and build upon social and academic skills, especially within the special needs community,” said M.C.'s mother. “To be denied outright an inclusive option due to flawed LAUSD policies has always felt wrong. Today I feel vindicated and happy to have made a difference. Now all families seeking a full inclusion option for their kiddos during the summer can walk into their IEPs knowing the state of California fully supports their educational goals in not just placement, but in quality and duration as well.”

Media Contacts:

Melinda Bird
Senior Litigation Counsel
Disability Rights California
(213) 213-8105 

Disability Rights California (DRC) – Is the agency designated under federal law to protect and advocate for the rights of Californians with disabilities. The mission of DRC is to defend, advance, and strengthen the rights and opportunities of people with disabilities. 

Vanaman German LLP is a private law firm whose practice focuses exclusively on fighting for the educational rights of students with disabilities.