Judges seem to gravitate toward deaf students in education cases


WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday appeared to agree with the arguments of a deaf student who sued his public school system for inadequate education, a legal challenge important to other disabled students and their families.

The question to the judiciary concerns a federal law that guarantees disabled students an education that meets their needs. During 90 minutes in the courtroom, liberal and conservative judges indicated they were inclined to govern for student Miguel Luna Perez.

His attorney, Roman Martinez, said that for 12 years, the Sturgis, Michigan public school system “neglected Miguel, denied him an education and lied to his parents about the alleged progress he was making in school.”

“This shameful behavior permanently impaired Miguel’s ability to communicate with the outside world,” Martinez said.

Judge Elena Kagan said she believed the argument that Perez did “everything right” in pursuing his case.

“It’s hard for me to understand that that’s not true. What should Miguel have done differently than in this case?” Kagan said. The liberal judiciary suggested to school system advocate Shay Dvoretzky that such cases “are prosecuted by parents trying to please their children.”

Perez, now 27, was in the courtroom. He observed with the support of American Sign Language translators and certified deaf interpreters, who can assist when a person’s communication skills are limited.

It remains difficult for Perez, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico at the age of 9, to make himself understood. Perez’s lawyers say the school system let him down by not providing him with a qualified sign language interpreter. An assistant who helped him didn’t know ASL, but tried to teach herself Signed English from a book. She essentially invented a system for signing that only she and Perez understood, leaving him unable to communicate with others, his attorneys said.

The school system also tricked his parents into believing he was well on his way to graduating from high school. However, shortly before graduation, his family was told that he only qualified for a “certificate of completion,” not a diploma.

His family responded by filing claims under two laws: the broad Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The latter guarantees children with disabilities free public education tailored to their specific needs.

The Perez family and the school district eventually settled the IDEA claims. The district agreed to pay for additional schooling and sign language classes for Perez and his family, among other things. The family then went to federal court seeking damages under the ADA, which is not available under IDEA.

Lower courts said the settlement barred Perez from pursuing his ADA claims in federal court. Perez’s attorneys said the US Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals’ 2-1 decision, authored by Judge Amul Thapar, an appointee for former President Donald Trump, was not consistent with any other federal circuit courts dealing with the issue have dealt with.

Former federal education officials were among those who wrote submissions to the Supreme Court telling the Court of Appeals that the appeals court’s decision was wrong. Officials said upholding lower court decisions would harm children with disabilities by forcing them to choose between having problems resolved immediately, forgoing other claims, or delaying trying to get broader relief.

While IDEA encourages settlements, upholding the lower court’s decision would force students and their families “to forego quick help and waste time, money and administrative resources” to protect their other entitlements, they said. The Biden administration also asked the court to side with Perez.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was among the judges who seemed inclined to agree with Perez. The Liberal Justice said it was their understanding that “Congress thought that double action was possible, at least in certain circumstances, and that was fine.”

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a Conservative, noted that rejecting an IDEA settlement offer means you risk not being able to recover attorneys’ fees. Her Conservative colleague, Justice Neil Gorsuch, suggested that the text of the IDEA also supports Perez.

Among those who wrote to the court telling the court that the lower courts were right were a national association of school administrators and an association of school supervisors. They said a different decision would weaken IDEA’s cooperative process for solving problems and lead to lengthy and costly court cases.

Perez graduated from the Michigan School for the Deaf with a diploma in June 2020. He said in a written statement, prepared with the assistance of an interpreter and a translator, that he learned building techniques at school and wants to build houses for a living. His Supreme Court case is difficult for him to understand, he said, although he understands that part of it is about “not having an interpreter.”

“I wish I could have gone to college,” he said. “I don’t have a job, but I want to have one. I want to make my own decisions.”

A decision in his case, Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, 21-887, is expected by the end of June.

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