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D.L. v. Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, No. 11-2041

Decided: January 16, 2013

In this case, the parents of an eighth grade student suffering from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”) brought suit against the Baltimore City Board of School Commissioner (“BCBSC”) in federal district court.  The parents alleged that, due to his learning disorder, the student was qualified for special education services under Section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973, 29 U.S.C. § 794.  However, because the student was enrolled in a private religious school, the BCBSC had denied the student’s request to receive these education services.  The BCBSC had informed the parents that their child would have to enroll in a Maryland public school in order to be eligible for the Section 504 assistance.  The district court granted the BCBSC’s motion for summary judgment, and the parents appealed to the Fourth Circuit.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit reviewed Section 504 and the regulations promulgated under it which require public schools to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) to “‘each qualified handicapped person who is in the recipient’s jurisdiction.’”  A FAPE requires the “‘provision of regular or special education and related aids and services that…are designed to meet individual educational needs of handicapped persons….’”  However, under the law, a FAPE does not require that the public school system “pay for a child’s education in a private school.”

After considering the relevant administrative guidance, statutory purposes, legal precedent, and public policy, the court concluded that nonpublic school students were not entitled to receive Section 504 services.  Thus, the court held that the BCBSC’s policy to deny this special assistance to private school students was not invalid under the statute.  According to the court, the public school district was required only to make these special services available to students enrolled in public school.  The court also held that this section of the Rehabilitation Act was not an unconstitutional burden on the parents’ right to direct the education of their child.  Although the BCBSC’s policy would make it more expensive for the parents to provide their child with a private religious education, the parents “retain[ed] full discretion over which school D.L. attends.”

Full Opinion

-John C. Bruton, III