I/DD and Legal Advocacy

For nearly twenty years, law student advocates enrolled in the Youth and Education Law Project (YELP) of Stanford Law School’s Mills Legal Clinic have been working on behalf of disadvantaged public school-age children, many of whom have intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), and their communities to ensure that they have access to equal and excellent educational opportunities. Given the pervasive stigma and negative stereotypes regarding the abilities of children with disabilities, the teachers and administrators in charge of their education often fail to recognize and nurture their unique gifts and talents. YELP student advocates help low-income families obtain the special education services to which their children are entitled–services that are essential to closing the opportunity gap for people with I/DD. They take part in a dynamic blend of education law work including school reform litigation, policy advocacy, strategic policy research and consulting, and direct client services. They also actively engage with multidisciplinary partners to understand and problem-solve the issues impacting children with I/DD and their families.

YELP achieved one of its most far-reaching victories in Emma C. v. Eastin, et al., a class action brought on behalf of children with disabilities in Ravenswood School District. The consent decree reached in the Emma C. case affected all aspects of special education delivery in the district, from educational assessments and the development of individualized education programs (IEPs) to ongoing implementation and state monitoring. Rather than singling out any particular disability, YELP took a multifaceted approach toward achieving long-term, system-wide integration using a Schoolwide Applications Model developed by Dr. Wayne Sailor, an expert witness in the case. (Several illustrative documents from the Emma C. case can be viewed here.)

Among the cases that YELP student advocates have litigated on behalf of individual clients is J.C. v. California School for the Deaf, in which a girl who was deaf and also had moderate to severe autism was denied admittance to the California School for the Deaf. YELP challenged J.C.’s exclusion as a form of disability-based discrimination under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Rejecting the State’s motion to dismiss, Federal District Court Judge Jeff White allowed the case to proceed on these theories. (See Judge White’s order here.) In so doing, the court effectively acknowledged that although J.C.’s local school district could provide her a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), the School for the Deaf could nevertheless be held liable under Section 504 for disability-based discrimination. YELP ultimately settled the case by arranging for J.C. to attend the School for the Deaf with appropriate services and accommodations.

Given the well-known correlation between academic failure and juvenile delinquency, another long-term focus of the YELP clinic is the educational needs of youth involved in the juvenile justice system. Although the public school system has an affirmative obligation to identify all children with disabilities (known as Child Find), all too often, at-risk youth are disciplined before their needs are identified or even assessed. Since education is the key to future success, the failure of schools to identify the learning needs of young people with I/DD, particularly young men of color, has significant adverse consequences for their life trajectories. YELP has represented several young men in the juvenile justice system who were not identified by their schools as requiring special education services even though they displayed significant cognitive impairments. As a first step, YELP student advocates typically interview children and teens who are involved in juvenile delinquency proceedings and review their educational backgrounds. If there is evidence to suggest that these students qualify for special education services, YELP helps their families request assessments. If they are deemed eligible for special education, YELP helps them develop effective IEPs so that they have an opportunity to learn and grow in the least restrictive environment that meets their needs.

In a recent federal case that could prove critical for children who require significant daily support, YELP represented a child with fetal alcohol syndrome who was denied public benefits available to individuals with I/DD because the state’s definition of “developmental disability” did not recognize fetal alcohol syndrome as a “specific related condition.” During an intensely litigated discovery process, YELP student advocates marshaled evidence demonstrating that the child’s functional limitations were equivalent to those of persons with intellectual disabilities and other qualifying conditions, and then filed a statement to this effect in preparation for a federal district court hearing. This case not only exposes the shortcomings of state policies that are based on formal diagnoses rather than functional limitations, but also underscores the importance of the aligning policy choices with current medical and scientific knowledge.