Students In D.C. Jail Sue City For Failing To Provide Instruction, Special Education Services During Pandemic

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This article was published on dcist by Debbie Truong on April 13, 2021.

Students incarcerated in the D.C. Jail have not regularly interacted with teachers for more than a year, according to a lawsuit filed last week that alleges the city has failed to educate the students during the coronavirus pandemic.

Attorneys for the 40 students enrolled in the Inspiring Youth Program, which operates inside the jail and is run by D.C. Public Schools, say the school system has onlyprovided worksheets to students since last March. All of the students qualify for special education services but have not received them during the pandemic, in violation of federal law, the class action suit says.

Kaitlin Banner, deputy legal director with the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, said the young people at the jail are already among the city’s most vulnerable students. 

“The fact that they have had no education provided to them and really no option to get their education for over a year is really just unacceptable,” she said.

D.C. Public Schools said in a statement it is working with Attorney General Karl Racine to address the complaint but declined to comment further because of the pending litigation. 

The school system is “committed to providing every student, including those receiving special education services, with a high-quality education,” the statement said.

In the lawsuit, two of the students enrolled in the program are asking a U.S. District Court judge to mandate the school system and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education provide in-person or live virtual instruction so the students can receive special education services they are entitled to.  

The students, who filed the complaint under pseudonyms, and their lawyers have asked the judge to grant a preliminary injunction, which would expedite a ruling on the case without going to trial.

When the pandemic pushed learning online, students in D.C. schools were  supplied digital devices and WiFi hotspots so they could participate in virtual classes during the pandemic. But students in the D.C. Jail have mostly received paper packets of work or given limited access to tablets uploaded with digital versions of the packets, the suit says. 

The tablets are equipped with a messaging feature where students may message a teacher to request help, according to the complaint. But many of the students struggle with reading and writing, making sending messages challenging.

The incarcerated youth say worksheets are sporadically dropped off in their cells or uploaded on tablets. They are expected to complete assignments without instruction or communication from teachers and students do not receive feedback except for progress reports or final grades at the end of each term, the suit says. The jail has been on lockdown during the public health crisis, which means the youth are only allowed outside their cells for one hour each day. 

Since the fall, two teachers have visited students in the jail on a volunteer basis to drop off worksheets. One special education teacher meets with three students for one hour, three days a week, according to the complaint. Another teacher visited the students twice a month for a few months before stopping.

In the complaint, one student, an 18-year-old male in the 12th grade, said he cannot access the online system that houses digital copies of the work packets and slideshows from inside his cell because the wireless signal is not strong enough. He must hold a tablet through a narrow slot in his cell door to connect to the online system and must keep his arms outstretched to download the materials. 

The student requested and received paper worksheet packets because he could not complete any assignments on the tablet, according to the lawsuit. 

The 12th grade student — who has been diagnosed with several disabilities including ADHD and depression — has an Individualized Education Plan, a personalized legal document for students with disabilities that spells out services the teenager must receive. The plan says the student is entitled to two hours of counseling each month but he has only received an hour total of counseling since he arrived at the jail in November, the lawsuit says. 

Another student, a 20-year-old male in 11th grade, also said he has not received any specialized services for his disabilities, which include several mental disorders, since March 2020. The student filed a complaint over the lack of services with the Office for the State Superintendent of Education, which oversees education in the city.

A hearing officer ruled the school system must meet with the student to figure out a plan to provide tutoring and virtual instruction. But the officer did not say the virtual instruction must include the special education services specified in the student’s individualized plan.

A lawyer for the student said he has not received additional instruction since the ruling. 

The lack of live lessons jeopardizes the 11th-grade-student’s ability to graduate from high school, potentially creating “irreparable educational, psychosocial, emotional, and personal harm,” according to the lawsuit. 

Tayo Belle, an attorney with the School Justice Project, a non-profit advocacy organization that provides legal services to incarcerated youth, said most students have not heard from teachers at all.

“Most of the clients that we represent at the D.C. Jail complex do not even know who their teachers are this school year,” she said. “They couldn’t name them if they wanted to because they haven’t been introduced.”