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Charles H. v the District of Columbia: Fighting for incarcerated students' rights to education

Two DC Bar Foundation grantees are undertaking an essential fight for educational rights in the District: School Justice Project (SJP) and Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs (WLC). In partnership with attorneys at Terris, Pravlik, and Millian LLP, SJP and WLC filed a class action lawsuit, Charles H. v the District of Columbia, in April 2020, challenging the District's failure to provide special education and related services to students at the DC Jail during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When COVID-19 hit the District in March 2020, students enrolled in DC Public Schools (DCPS) stopped in-person classes and nearly immediately began virtual instruction. However, students in the DCPS system at the DC Jail complex did not receive a similar alternative. They were denied the resources guaranteed under federal and local law to enable them to continue their education amidst the public health crisis.

School Justice Project, which supports incarcerated students within the DC Jail, reported that their clients did not receive technology or Wi-Fi once the pandemic hit. 100% of the over-18 students enrolled in the high school program at the DC Jail have disabilities, so the failure to provide appropriate resources and enable synchronous virtual learning was detrimental to their educational progress.

In a recent School Justice Project virtual event highlighting the case, SJP Senior Staff Attorney Tayo Belle said, "We feel very strongly, as do our clients, that this was a gross injustice that needed to be taken on."

Though the case is still underway, School Justice Project, Washington Lawyers' Committee, and Terris, Pravlik, and Millian LLP have secured several important successes. After filing the litigation, the legal team sought a preliminary injunction, which allowed students in the DC Jail to immediately begin accessing full hours of special education and related services. The District is now also required to report monthly on the number of education hours each student receives against the number of hours mandated in their Individualized Educational Plans.

This legal fight is making meaningful change for the students inside the DC Jail. Perhaps most importantly, it gives them a sense of empowerment and control over their education. Says Tayo Belle, "They were all, from the very beginning, very, very willing to jump in and help us litigate this case, help us understand the issues, give their time when they obviously have a myriad of things happening in their own lives that could have otherwise taken precedence. They have all put this case front and center."

These problems are not unique to the DC Jail. Charles H. v the District of Columbia was one of the first federal cases to enforce students' rights to special education and related services during the pandemic. SJP, WLC, and Terris, Pravlik & Millian have shared their knowledge and expertise with other advocates around the country who are bringing similar cases forward, creating a nationwide impact.

Says Belle, "This case has let the students know that people care. That people are watching out for their interests."

The Foundation is proud to provide funding for School Justice Project and Washington Lawyers' Committee, especially as this fight for students' rights continues. To learn more about how the Foundation supports legal aid organizations making real change in the District, visit our website.


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