Disability Law United, DREDF, and King & Spalding LLP File Lawsuit Against State of CA for Failure to Provide Special Education Services

December 14, 2023

CRESENT CITY, CA – On December 14, Disability Law United, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), and the law firm King & Spalding LLP as pro bono counsel filed a complaint (linked here and accessible below) against the State of California alleging that the Del Norte County Unified School District has failed to provide equal educational opportunities to disabled students in the district as required by the Constitution of the state of California and that the State must step in.

Del Norte County is located in the far northwest corner of California. Its school district is comprised of 11 schools — eight elementary schools, one middle school, and two high schools. The district serves a higher proportion of special education, Native American, and low-income students compared to other California districts. Specifically, 15.4% of students have IEPs, exceeding the 13% state average. Native American students, representing tribes like Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation and Yurok Tribe, make up 15.2% of students with IEPs, far surpassing the state average of 0.7%. Moreover, over 65% of district students qualify for reduced-price meals, exceeding the state average of 60%.

The complaint asserts that Del Norte Unified has failed, and continues to fail, to effectively manage and allocate its special education resources, rendering it institutionally incapable of providing a free and appropriate education to its special education students as required by the state Constitution.

The plaintiffs argue that these systemic failures result in a violation of the students’ rights under the California Constitution, which guarantees students with disabilities the right to 180 school days and a free and appropriate education tailored to their unique needs. Ultimately, the State has this constitutional obligation when a district cannot or will not provide an education consistent with prevailing education standards.

Among the failures highlighted in the complaint are shortages of behavioral aides, a scarcity of board-certified behavior analysts, and an insufficient number of special education teachers. These critical shortages make it virtually impossible for the school district to fulfill its legal obligation to provide quality education and support to students with disabilities.

The parent of Monica C., a complainant said, “My child already has learning disabilities and she’s falling further and further behind her peers by no fault of her own. As of today, she hasn’t had one day of direct instruction yet this school year, not an aid under someone’s supervision, not a sub, nothing.

One of the plaintiffs is a sixteen-year-old student in the eleventh grade with an intellectual disability and is non-ambulatory. She has only attended school for seven out of over 50 days of school so far because she has not had an aide. Another plaintiff, a twelve-year-old student in the sixth grade who is immunocompromised after two and half years of chemotherapy, has regressed substantially in academic and speech skills because she has not received special education services of any kind.

The staff shortages hit a critical point this school year, which has forced disabled students to miss school completely and numerous others to go to class where little to no learning occurs. It is like they are not going to school at all,” said Malhar Shah, Staff Attorney at DREDF.

Cynthia L. Rice, Legal Director at Disability Law United, further noted that “Students are not only being denied the right to progress academically, they have regressed due to the lack of a program that can reinforce skills and knowledge they previously had. The District cannot or will not act, so the State must step in.

The complaint filed by DREDF, Disability Law United, and pro bono counsel King & Spalding LLP, seeks immediate decisive action by the State. Specifically, it calls for the intervention of the State of California to assume management of the Del Norte Unified School District in order to address the district’s long-standing failure to provide equal educational opportunities to its disabled students, as well as the resulting grave and irreparable harm to those students and their families.

Media Contacts:

Disability Law United: Cynthia L. Rice, Legal Director, (303) 551-9389, crice@creeclaw.org
DREDF: Tina Pinedo, Comms Director, (510) 225-7726, media@dredf.org


Disability Law United (Disability Law United) is a nonprofit legal organization that fights for liberation and equity through the lens of intersectional disability justice. Disability Law United’s work is informed by grassroots movements for systemic change and centers the concerns and goals of people with disabilities who are confronting barriers to access to programs and services and resisting oppressive legal systems in the United States. Visit www.creeclaw.org for more information.

Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, founded in 1979, is a leading national civil rights law and policy center directed by individuals with disabilities and parents who have children with disabilities. DREDF’s mission is to advance the civil and human rights of people with disabilities through legal advocacy, training, education and public policy and legislative development. For more information, visit dredf.org.

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