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Students With Disabilities Turning 22 Are In Limbo After Court Ruling

Students With Disabilities Turning 22 Are In Limbo After Court Ruling

Several school districts in Pennsylvania have informed parents whose children with disabilities are turning 22 in the coming academic year that they will no longer be able to attend school following conflicting court decisions. (Shutterstock)

PHILADELPHIA — A Commonwealth Court decision striking down a directive that allowed students with disabilities to remain in school until age 22 — and a subsequent appeal — has left potentially hundreds of families in limbo, as districts are making independent decisions on whether to cut or keep services.

In the wake of last month’s ruling, numerous districts have informed parents whose children are turning 22 in the coming academic year that they will no longer be able to attend school — an abrupt termination for families who had anticipated remaining enrolled until as late as next spring.

“We feel like the rug was just pulled out from underneath us,” said Carolyn Kelly, whose 21-year-old daughter attends the Council Rock School District and was informed that her services would soon be ending.

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Meanwhile, some districts say they will continue to provide services until students turn 22. They cited the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s appeal, which officials said stayed the ruling.

What led to the latest decision?

Before last year, Pennsylvania had only guaranteed services for students with disabilities through the school year in which they turn 21.

But advocates for students with disabilities said federal law already requires services through a student’s 22nd birthday — citing language from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) that refers to students “between the ages of 3 and 21, inclusive.” Courts have forced some other states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island, to provide services until students turn 22.

In July, lawyers sued Pennsylvania on behalf of a Lower Merion student, arguing that the state was illegally depriving a vulnerable population of needed services. As part of a settlement agreement, the education department announced the next month that it had revised its policy, and that any students who had turned 21 and exited in the previous school year could reenroll in their district.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association and three districts — including Central Bucks and Upper Darby — then sued to block the change. The districts argued the state education department didn’t have the authority to unilaterally make the decision, and also said they hadn’t been given time to budget for the reenrolled students.

“Our members were neither consulted about nor prepared to implement such a change,” said a spokesperson for the association, Mackenzie Christiana.

What did the decision say?

Last month, the Commonwealth Court sided with the districts, finding that the education department’s directive was void and “unenforceable.” The department needed to follow a formal rule-making process in order to institute the change, the court said, rejecting the department’s contention that it had only issued “guidance” rather than a new regulation.

The court, however, said it did not consider “whether the New Age-Out Plan is necessary for the department to comply with the IDEA, just that the department must promulgate the change in accordance with” state rule-making laws.

A spokesperson for the education department said it appealed the ruling. “The Shapiro Administration is committed to ensuring that every Pennsylvania student receives a high-quality education — and PDE believes that its guidance, which helps to ensure students with disabilities receive the services to which they are entitled, is consistent with federal law,” said Casey Smith.

Smith said the appeal meant the court’s decision was “stayed pending resolution of the appeal or further order of court.”

How are school districts responding?

While Smith said the department had notified districts that it believes its guidance last year “is consistent with IDEA” — meaning, students would be entitled to receive services until 22 — districts have been taking different approaches since the ruling.

As of late May, the Public Interest Law Center — which was involved in filing the case against the state last July — said it had heard from parents in 10 districts that services were being cut off for their children next year.

“They’re telling parents the court has invalidated” the directive, and “we’re required to graduate you,” said Claudia De Palma, a staff attorney at the law center. But “our position is that federal law” requires services provided through age 22.

At least one district reversed course. Central Bucks informed families of 23 students that in light of the education department’s appeal, “we will honor their current IEP and continue to provide service to age 22,” said Acting Superintendent Jim Scanlon.

Upper Darby — another district that had challenged the education department’s policy — said late last month that it was still reviewing the court’s decision and department’s appeal, “and we will comment when it is best for all involved,” said spokesperson Aaronda Beauford.

What does it mean for families?

Two parents told the Inquirer they had been notified by their districts that their children’s services would be ending in light of the court ruling. “It was really just a two-sentence email,” said one parent, whose 21-year-old child attends the Norristown Area School District. The parent, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said the district told her the court had “overruled” the age-22 policy, and her child’s services would now end next month — rather than when he turns 22, nearly a year from now.

Now she’s scrambling to get her child work through the state Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, which she first signed up for in 2022. “The queue is very, very long,” she said, though she was able to get a meeting with a case manager scheduled for June.

She’s worried about what will happen if her son can’t obtain services in time.

“It means my child would sit home and watch TV, 24 hours a day every day,” she said. She and her husband have been discussing who might quit their job to help care for him.

Jillian Williamson, a spokesperson for the Norristown district, said the district “must follow the law and abide by all legal rulings regarding student enrollment.” She said the district “will support our students and families to the greatest extent possible while remaining in compliance with our legal requirements as a public school district as this matter continues to be litigated.”

Kelly, the Council Rock parent, didn’t know there was litigation over the age-out policy until recently, when she heard from the district “out of the blue” that her daughter’s services would be ending. Her daughter won’t be turning 22 until next May, and “we don’t have anything with respect to a job lined up for her,” Kelly said. “Any transportation, any speech therapy or occupational therapy she was getting at school — all of that stuff just goes away in June, for her, with less than a month’s notice to us.”

She’s started the process of trying to get her daughter a waiver from the state for adult services, but there are waiting lists.

Most providers “don’t have vacancies,” said Josh Fields, executive director of The Next Step Programs in Bucks County, who said he got calls from “afraid and frustrated” families after the ruling. “We don’t really know how this is going to play out,” said Fields, who has been encouraging parents to work with county offices and case managers.

Kelly said the district had sent an email acknowledging an appeal was filed, but didn’t share any additional information, she said. A district spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

While her daughter struggles with transitions and needs time to prepare for what comes next, Kelly said, she hasn’t told her yet about school ending. “We don’t want to put her in this tug of war,” she said.

© 2024 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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