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D.L. v. District of Columbia, School District's Failures Cause "Severe and Lasting Harm" to Vulnerable Children with Disabilities
by Pam Wright

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On November 16 2011, a federal judge issued a ruling in D.L. v. District of Columbia, (D.D.C., Civ. No. 05-1437).

D.L. v. District of Columbia is a class action lawsuit brought against the District of Columbia by seven young children with disabilities and their parents who endured obstacles to securing appropriate special education services.

Judge Royce C. Lamberth held that the District of Columbia failed to identify, locate and evaluate hundreds of preschool children with disabilities, and failed to provide them with a free appropriate public education as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Early Intervention: A “Narrow Window of Opportunity … Can Work a Miracle”

In his decision, Judge Lamberth wrote about the “narrow window of opportunity” when quality early intervention programs can work miracles:

“This case concerns the District of Columbia’s obligations … to provide special education to some of our most vulnerable citizens at a very early and critical stage in their lives. In the first few years of a child’s life, there exists a narrow window of opportunity in which special education, tailored to the child’s particular needs, can work a miracle …”

“[S]omewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 80 percent” of the disabled children who are found in the community and served by quality early intervention programs will go on to kindergarten alongside every other ordinary five-year-old—without needing further supplemental special education. Trial Transcript, Dunst Testimony, 115:4–116:15, Apr. 6, 2011. So that’s what’s at stake here.”

The “Child Find” Mandate

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act includes the “Child Find” mandate that requires states to locate, identify and evaluate all children with disabilities from birth through age 21.

Child Find applies to all children, including children who attend private schools and public schools, highly mobile children, migrant children, homeless children, and children who are wards of the state. (20 U.S.C. Sec. 1412(a)(3))

Note: You will find the Child Find requirements in Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, pages 72, 206-207]

Failure to Comply with Child Find Does Irreparable Injury to Children

Judge Lamberth wrote about damage sustained by children who do not receive the special education and related services they need:

“The Court finds that these violations result in irreparable injury to all eligible children between the ages of three and five years old, inclusive … whom defendants did not identify, locate, evaluate, or offer special education and related services. Without access to these special education and related services, preschool-age children in the District of Columbia suffer substantial harm by being denied vital educational opportunities that are essential to their development.

The Judge established specific performance benchmarks in several areas. For example, the District of Columbia must:

  • Submit biannual and annual reports to the court showing their progress
  • Ensure that 95 percent of preschool children referred receive timely evaluations
  • Ensure that children from birth to age 3 who are in early-intervention programs receive a smooth and effective transition to preschool special education programs by their third birthdays.

If the District of Columbia does not meet the benchmarks, Judge Lamberth warned that it should expect “more intrusive Court involvement – e.g. the appointment of a special master or monitor.”

Judge Lambert concluded that: “Defendants’ persistent failure to live up to their statutory obligations, a failure that works a severe and lasting harm on one of society’s most vulnerable populations—disabled preschool children—is deeply troubling to this Court.

“Since defendants have demonstrated their historic inability to keep their promises to the District’s disabled preschool children, this Court hereby makes it crystal clear that failing to abide by the Court’s Order will earn defendants far more significant court involvement and oversight than is ordered this day.

”Parent attorney Margaret Kohn said “It’s a wonderful day … Early childhood is the time when you can have the greatest impact.”

Bruce Terris, another parent attorney, said the decision could double the number of preschool children who receive special education and related services.

Wrightslaw Note: This is the latest in a series of federal court decisions that found serious deficiencies in the District of Columbia’s special education programs.

Judge Lamberth has presided over this six-year-old special education class action suit. In April, the Judge lambasted city attorneys for their “repeated, flagrant and unrepentant failures to comply with Court orders” in handling pre-trial discovery. “A discovery violation of this exotic magnitude is literally unheard of in this court.”

You can read the decision in D.L v. District of Columbia (D.D.C., Civ. No. 05-1437) at

Read the Amended Complaint

“Judge Accuses D.C. of Discovery Violation 'So Extreme As To Be Literally Unheard Of' ” published by The Legal Times on May 10, 2011

Parent Attorneys

The children and their parents are represented by:

Bruce J. Terris, Kathleen L. Millian, and Shina Majeed
Terris, Pravlik & Millian, LLP
1121 12th Street N.W.
Washington, DC 20005

Jeffrey S. Gutman, Professor of Clinical Law
The George Washington University Law School
2000 G Street, N.W.
Washington, DC 20052

Margaret A. Kohn, Attorney at Law
1320 19th Street, N.W., Suite 200
Washington, DC 20036

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Revised: 00
Created: 12/14/11

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