D.C. Fails to Provide Special Education for Students Incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons

Gregg Kelley, Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs Gregg_Kelley@washlaw.org, 202-319-1070

WASHINGTON – Two students with disabilities, on behalf of themselves and a class of similarly situated students, filed complaints challenging the District of Columbia’s failure to provide them with special education and related services while they are incarcerated in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). These students are entitled to special education under federal law, yet there are no high school programs in BOP facilities that provide students with special education, access to the District of Columbia curriculum, or a District of Columbia high school diploma.  For over a decade, the District has deprived every eligible DC student with disabilities serving a sentence in the BOP the education to which they are entitled for the entire time they are incarcerated away from home.

Since 1997, the District has not maintained a local prison for individuals to serve sentences from a conviction of a felony violation of the D.C. Criminal Code.  Instead, the District relies on the BOP to incarcerate its citizens.  DC students transferred to BOP facilities are entitled to special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and corresponding federal and local regulations. Yet, these eligible students have been denied their education for over fifteen years.

There is nothing in the law that permits the District to ignore students incarcerated in the BOP. In fact, in Brown v. District of Columbia the court held that, as a general matter, the District is responsible for providing special education to D.C. Code offenders incarcerated in the BOP. These students are being systematically stripped of an appropriate education because they are housed in BOP facilities, and the District disclaims any responsibility for them. In contrast, adult students incarcerated by other jurisdictions and held in state prisons are able to access their education.

Failure to provide special education and related services, including transition services, has real and devastating consequences.  Adult students with disabilities who are incarcerated are triply impacted: only 40% of District of Columbia students with special education needs graduate; graduation rates for older students indicate that fewer than 30% of students aged 18-22 graduate, and graduation rates for court-involved students are even lower.  The students in this case are asking hearing officers to order the District to develop a system to ensure that D.C. students incarcerated in the BOP can access their special education and related services.

Sarah Comeau, Director of Programs and Co-Founder of School Justice Project, says “D.C. has known about this problem for years. In fact, the Brown decision from 2018 made clear that the District has the obligation to provide education to its residents with special education needs in the BOP, yet the District has staunchly refused to do anything for these young people except let them languish in facilities across the country without access to education.”

Marja Plater, Senior Counsel at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs says, “The District is denying young DC residents with disabilities in the BOP their right to an education – plain and simple.  Young people in the BOP want their education. Their rights matter and they deserve to return home with the skills necessary to reintegrate successfully into the community.”

The plaintiffs are represented by the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, School Justice Project, and Nixon Peabody LLP.  Defendants are the District of Columbia Public Schools and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.

Links to redacted filed complaints to preserve student confidentiality:

Filed Complaint 1
Filed Complaint 2


The Hoya

ABOUT THE WASHINGTON LAWYERS’ COMMITTEE: Founded in 1968, The Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs works to create legal, economic and social equity through litigation, client and public education and public policy advocacy. While we fight discrimination against all people, we recognize the central role that current and historic race discrimination plays in sustaining inequity and recognize the critical importance of identifying, exposing, combatting and dismantling the systems that sustain racial oppression. For more information, please visit www.washlaw.org or call 202.319.1000. Follow us on Twitter at @WashLaw4CR.

ABOUT SCHOOL JUSTICE PROJECT: School Justice Project (SJP) is a non-profit legal services and advocacy organization serving DC’s older court-involved students with disabilities. SJP uses special education law to ensure that older, court-involved students with disabilities have access to a quality education, both during incarceration and throughout reentry.  SJP works to build racial justice by increasing educational equity and decreasing mass incarceration through direct representation, systemic advocacy, and community outreach and legal training. Using special education law in the juvenile and criminal contexts, SJP aims to spark a system-wide overhaul, transforming the educational landscape for older court-involved students with disabilities. For more information, please visit www.sjpdc.org.

ABOUT NIXON PEABODY LLP: Nixon Peabody LLP is an American Lawyer 100 top law firm in the United States and has 15 offices worldwide. We deliver exceptional service to our clients and our communities by combining high performance, entrepreneurial spirit, deep engagement, and an unwavering commitment to a culture of collaboration, diversity, and humanity. Visit us at www.nixonpeabody.com.

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