Brown v. District of Columbia, No. CV 17-348, 2019 WL 1924245, 119 LRP 17246  (D.D.C. April 30, 2019), presents the problem whether an individual convicted of a felony and incarcerated in a federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) facility is entitled to special education services under the IDEA, and if so, whether responsibility for providing the services falls on the BOP or the local educational agency of which he is a resident. A lifelong D.C. resident, the plaintiff became eligible for special education while in elementary school, then in 2014 when he was 18, he was arrested and placed in a detention facility in the District of Columbia, where he received special education services under his IEP. After conviction as an adult, he was transferred to Hazelton Federal Correctional Institution in West Virginia, where the educational services stopped. After his release in November 2016, he returned to the D.C. schools and received special education again.

Two months before his release from Hazelton, the plaintiff filed a due process complaint against both the District of Columbia and the BOP. The hearing officer dismissed the complaint as to the BOP on the ground the federal government was not subject to the IDEA and as to the District on the ground the statute does not impose duties on state or local officials when a student is incarcerated in a federal facility. Plaintiff sued to set aside the hearing officer decision.

In a published decision from 2018, the court held that the IDEA does not apply to the BOP, but only to states eligible to receive federal funds under that law. Brown v. District of Columbia, 324 F. Supp. 3d 154 (D.D.C. 2018). On the IDEA claim against the District, the court said it was not deciding whether all states are responsible for providing FAPE when their residents are in federal prisons, but confined the analysis to students eligible under the IDEA who are convicted as adults for violation of D.C. law and incarcerated by the BOP under National Capital Revitalization and Self Government Improvement Act of 1997, Pub. L. No. 105-33, § 11201, 111 Stat. 251, 734 (1997). The court noted that “the plain text of the IDEA generally requires states to provide a FAPE to ‘children who are convicted as adults under state law and incarcerated in an adult prison.’ 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(7).” 324 F. Supp. 3d at 160, and that the Revitalization Act did not impliedly repeal that requirement even though it directed that the BOP be responsible for and fund, among other things, the care, education, and training of individuals sentenced under the D.C. Code. The court rejected a Department of Education interpretation to the contrary found in a notice of proposed rulemaking and said the D.C. schools could work out an agreement with the BOP to serve students in BOP facilities, or provide post-incarceration compensatory services. Thus, the District’s motion to dismiss the IDEA claim was denied.

The court then addressed the plaintiff’s claims under Section 504, 29 U.S.C. § 794, and held that although the plaintiff’s Section 504 claims needed to be exhausted under IDEA procedures, that bar is not jurisdictional and was waived when not adequately raised in the motions to dismiss; nevertheless, the Section 504 claims were dismissed for the plaintiff’s failure to allege something more than failure to provide free, appropriate public education required by the IDEA.

The most recent opinion, the one referenced at the outset of this post, was on a motion to reconsider. The court rejected the District’s argument that the provision in the IDEA about not preventing law enforcement and judicial authorities from exercising responsibilities regarding crimes committed by children with disabilities, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k)(6), barred liability. The court reemphasized that the District could cooperate with the BOP and that would not interfere with law enforcement or the exercise of judicial authority. The court further pointed out that the IDEA provision preserves state law enforcement power and judicial authority. The court repeated that the Revitalization Act did not supersede the IDEA’s requirements and relieve D.C. of its responsibilities to its residents. The appearance of the word “education” in the Revitalization Act was not enough to reassign all obligations to provide FAPE to the BOP.

The specifics of the District of Columbia Revitalization Act may not carry great significance for special education decision makers in other states, but the opinion contains a lesson in the court’s insistence on the obligation under the IDEA to provide FAPE to all eligible children who are residents of the local school district, even if they find themselves in a federal correctional institution elsewhere. That proposition might be subject to debate in the District of Columbia because of the Revitalization Act, but would appear to be incontrovertible elsewhere.