State Supreme Court: Disabled Students Don’t Have to Wait Years to Seek Justice

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Washington Supreme Court issued a great and unanimous ruling for disabled students this Thursday in a case (Dowler v. Clover Park School District)  in which the ACLU-WA submitted a friend-of-the-court brief.  The facts in the case were horrendous, and the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was being used to stop the students from getting relief. 

Students endured endless verbal abuse from district staff, including derogatory jokes, name-calling, and nonstop mocking. One teacher had forced disabled students to clean up after non-disabled students in the cafeteria while he referred to them as “slaves.” Several students endured physical abuse, with one student repeatedly coming home from school with unexplained bruises and injuries. Some disabled students endured instances of repeated sexual assaults, physical abuse, and threats of violence from non-disabled peer students because certain district staff failed to supervise disabled students.

The ruling allows disabled students to seek protection from state civil rights laws to the same extent as other legally protected classes.  This may seem like a no-brainer, yet various courts throughout country have required special education students to make and exhaust claims through IDEA first.  In this and other cases, doing so creates a barrier to obtaining relief for years of verbal and physical discrimination and harassment based on their disabilities. The Washington Supreme Court agreed with the plaintiffs and the ACLU-WA that plaintiffs don’t necessarily have to go through federal administrative steps before making state tort law or discrimination claims.

This was a heartening victory for state civil rights laws. ACLU-WA legal director Sarah Dunne and staff attorney Nancy Talner wrote our brief in the case.