Federal Ruling Supports the Rights of Detained Youth to Receive Education Services

Contact: Camilla Jenkins, 646-216-3311; cjenkins@childrensrights.org

(ATLANTA) – On March 11, a federal court in Atlanta set an important precedent that can have state-wide implications on special education resources in jails.

The court denied a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim from DeKalb County Sheriff Melody Mattox, in response to a suit filed last year on behalf of incarcerated youth who have a right to special education services and accommodations. The case was brought by Children’s Rights, Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, LLP and the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory University School of Law, joined by Hecht Walker PC.

Plaintiffs argue that the sheriff’s office failed to identify, evaluate, and provide special education services for eligible youths detained at the jail in violation of the IDEA, Title II of the ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The DeKalb County jail is one of the largest in the nation.

In response, the sheriff had sought to have the claims against her dismissed because her office is not an educational agency, and has no obligation under federal or state law to provide educational services to incarcerated youth. Judge Thrash disagreed: “The Plaintiffs in this case have plausibly alleged that Sheriff Maddox interfered with their right to special education services by failing to identify them as special needs students and by failing to collaborate with state and local educational agencies to ensure that their needs were met.

This is a case of first impression both in Georgia and the Eleventh Circuit that a County Sheriff may be held liable under federal special education and anti-discrimination laws for its role in failing to provide special education services to students who are in county jails.

“For our clients, 17 to 21 year old students with disabilities in the DeKalb County Jail, the right to special education is enshrined in federal law. This decision sends a clear message to the sheriff that she can no longer ignore this right,” said Christina Remlin, Lead Counsel at Children’s Rights. “Providing education to incarcerated students with disabilities is not only legally required, it is the best thing for society. When we educate young people we tell them we are still invested in their future, that their best days are yet to come.”

Formerly confined youth face high rates—as much as 55 percent—of recidivism. But educational services can help bring that number down. When individuals—even adults—participate in any kind of educational program while incarcerated, their chances of future incarceration drop by 13 percent.

For detained youth who are already at the margins, the effect of an education is even more profound. When already disadvantaged youth are denied basic educational opportunities, they face severe limitations on their prospects of graduation from high school, meaningful employment, and the possibility for post-secondary education. Georgians without high school diplomas are nearly twice as likely to live in poverty as Georgians with diplomas and they collectively earn a median income of only $19,172, almost $7,000 lower than the median income of high school graduates.


Children’s Rights is a national non-profit organization, has made a lasting impact for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children. For more information, please visit www.childrensrights.org.