Deaf student Miguel Perez appeared to be an ideal student. But his parents found out the truth a few months before graduation. They are currently campaigning to provide disabled students additional legal recourse in case something goes wrong.
WATERLOO – A model student for more than ten years, Miguel Perez consistently earned As and Bs on his report cards, was named to the honor roll, and depended heavily on the deaf assistant his school provided for him.
His parents were therefore shocked to find that their son will receive a “certificate of completion” rather than a diploma months before graduation. It turned out that the helper that his little Michigan school district had assigned didn’t speak sign language. Perez was reading at a third-grade level after 12 years of schooling and was free of any other disabilities.
In one of the most important special education cases in recent memory, Perez is currently asking the Supreme Court to make it simpler for families to sue schools for damages. The verdict, which is anticipated by the end of June, may assist parents and schools in making sense of a piece of the confusing legal framework that controls the 7.2 million special education children across the country.
In the midst of what may be a difficult dispute over the education of specifically challenged pupils, experts say it might also change the power dynamics between parents and schools. In other words, a decision in Perez’s favor might give parents more clout.
“There was one other deaf student, but we were unable to communicate. No one translated for me, “Perez, who is now 27 years old, recounted in a statement given by his attorney with the help of numerous translators. “While I don’t currently have a job, I desire one. I prefer to make my own decisions.”
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, and the Americans with Disabilities Act interact in the case of Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools. The question at hand is whether a student who has not completed the administrative process required by the IDEA may sue a school for damages under the ADA.
Settlement but not resolution
The difficulties that many pupils with impairments must overcome are highlighted by Perez’s travel around the southern Michigan school district with 3,000 students.
His family claims that administrators at the school misrepresented his aide’s credentials. They claim that as time went on, the assistant was given new responsibilities, which prevented Perez from speaking with anyone for hours on end each day. And despite not understanding the subject, Perez was advanced through each grade level, according to his lawyers.
The fact that Perez’s family left Mexico when he was 9 years old only made matters worse. Only Spanish was spoken by his parents.
By the time Perez’s parents enter court, they have already worked with the district for years to create what is known as an Individualized Education Program, a unique plan for their student’s schooling mandated by the IDEA. This procedure entails negotiations between districts, which are mandated by law to provide a “free appropriate education,” but also must consider the costs, and parents, who are striving to gain as much as they can for their children.
For a variety of challenges, including dyslexia, health problems, speech or language difficulties, and autism, schools and parents negotiate IEPs.
Perez complained to Michigan authorities in 2017, claiming that his school had broken local, state, and federal regulations, including the IDEA. Before the case was determined, the district attempted to settle, promising to pay for Perez to attend the Michigan School for the Deaf.
The compensation was accepted by Perez’s family.
His family then filed a discrimination lawsuit against the district under the Americans with Disabilities Act, seeking unspecified monetary damages. Because he accepted the settlement, a federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, saying that Perez had not exhausted the proper IDEA process. A divided panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Perez filed an appeal with the Supreme Court in late 2021.
The district’s superintendent, Art Ebert, declined to address the claims raised in the suit because he wasn’t in charge when Perez attended Sturgis, but he said in an email that the experience would help the district “gain knowledge, insight, and understanding that will help us maximize every student’s true potential.”
While the legal problem is technical, supporters argue the verdict could have far-reaching repercussions by providing parents more bargaining leverage with schools.
Disability advocates fear that a judgment in favor of the district would deter parents from settling with schools if doing so requires waiving their future right to sue for damages.
Shira Wakschlag, senior director of legal advocacy at The Arc, a disability advocacy organization, stated, “Kids with disabilities and their families are already experiencing significant difficulties in accessing the education they need. She claimed that a verdict against Perez would increase “the burden of families who are already enormously burdened.”
But, according to Malhar Shah, an attorney with the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, a victory for Perez could alter the way schools approach special education. He warned that “they can no longer immunize themselves as easily as they could previously from such money losses,” and that districts will be put on notice.
The IDEA procedure, which is meant to promptly address students’ needs, would be injected with a judicial battle over money, according to schools, who argue that the rationale is backward. If their acts could be used against them in a lawsuit for damages, school districts might be compelled to approach that process differently.
Working with parents is the school district’s top priority, according to Francisco Negrón, the National School Boards Association’s chief legal officer. “It would be unfortunate if the court rules in a way that discourages that process,” he said.
Sasha Pudelski, advocacy director for the School Superintendents Association, expressed concern that such a decision would foster “a culture of litigation” and cause parents to “prioritize money from the districts over educational services.”
Emeritus professor of law and education at Lehigh University Perry Zirkel presented the argument in terms of leverage. Attorneys representing a student, he added, might say they desire “the possibility of a million-dollar award because it will cause districts to do the right thing.”
Nonetheless, Zirkel urged people not to anticipate too many changes as a result of the court’s ruling. This is so, he explained, because the majority of families that sue a school for ADA damages end up losing.
“A family winning money is by much the exception to the rule,” he remarked.
Leading service dog
The most recent time the Supreme Court addressed these issues was in the 2017 decision of Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools. After Wonder, a student with cerebral palsy’s service dog was prohibited from the classroom by the school, she filed a lawsuit for damages. The student, according to the school, didn’t finish the IDEA’s required process before bringing a lawsuit.
The court concluded unanimously that students do not have to wait to file a lawsuit under the ADA if the core of their claim does not pertain to the IDEA’s provision of free and suitable education. In other words, the student’s education had nothing to do with the dog. Instead, prohibiting the dog prevented her from using public space on an equal basis.
Ehlena Fry, the student, ultimately made a decision.
Perez’s school system mainly relies on the Fry ruling. After that, Perez’s complaint is more explicitly about education, according to its attorneys. Yet, a majority of the justices indicated support for Perez during a 90-minute oral argument in January.
Perez sat silently in the lavish courtroom as the justices discussed. Afterward, he expressed his admiration for the “beautiful building” and gratitude that all nine justices were actively involved.
“They seemed to pay close attention to the lawyers, in my opinion. That was very much appreciated “He told the associated press in a statement. “I want to win and hope that other people like me can receive interpreters.”