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Georgia District Court Grants Relief in IDEA Class Action for Children in Need of Special Education in Adult Jail

Contact: Camilla Jenkins, cjenkins@childrensrights.org

ATLANTA, GA —On April 29, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia issued a remedial relief order in T.H. v. DeKalb County School District. The Court ruled that the DeKalb County Sheriff must provide eligible incarcerated youth with legally mandated special education and related services.

The case was filed in 2019 by Children’s Rights, the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory University School of Law, Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, LLP and Hecht Walker, P.C. The lawsuit was brought on behalf of incarcerated youth, aged 17 through 21 with a qualifying disability, who have a right to special education services and accommodations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Named in the suit were the DeKalb County School District, the Georgia Department of Education, and the Sheriff, Melody M. Maddox.

For more than a decade, hundreds of students with disabilities held in the DeKalb County jail, one of the largest in the country, have not been getting the special education services they’re entitled to under federal law. Youth in confinement who are denied access to education are far less likely to graduate from high school, find meaningful employment or go on to college. In Georgia, those without a high school diploma are twice as likely to live in poverty.

In September 2021, the Court granted Plaintiffs’ motion for summary judgment in the case, marking the first decision in Georgia to hold that the IDEA entitles students with disabilities to special education within adult jails.

The School District and Department of Education, which earlier agreed to settle the claims against them, have already begun working with Sheriff Maddox to begin offering classes in the fall for youth being held in the DeKalb County Jail.

“This is a victory for youth and young adults in DeKalb County who have been denied the special education services they’re entitled to, a disproportionate number of whom are poor, Black and frequently caught in a vicious school to prison pipeline,” said Aaron Finch, Lead Counsel at Children’s Rights. “The positive effects of education on incarcerated youth are profound. Recidivism rates drop and those who achieve higher levels of education while incarcerated are more likely to experience better life outcomes once released.”

“For far too long the young people I represent have been languishing behind bars when they should have been getting services to help prepare them for life after incarceration. It is time to stop denying youth their right to an education – and a shot at a decent future — and start identifying, evaluating and serving the needs of special education students in the DeKalb County Jail,” said Randee Waldman, Clinical Professor of Law, and the Director of the Barton Juvenile Defender Clinic at Emory University School of Law.

“We welcome the Court’s order, and Sheriff Maddox’s consent, to identify those students with special needs, and collaborate with state and local educational agencies to ensure that those needs are met.” said David Brackett, Partner, Bondurant Mixson & Elmore, LLP.

To read the court’s order, click here.

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ABOUT CHILDREN’S RIGHTS

Every day, children are harmed in America’s broken child welfare, juvenile justice, education, and healthcare systems. Through relentless strategic advocacy and legal action, we hold governments accountable for keeping kids safe and healthy. Children’s Rights, a national non-profit organization, has made a lasting impact for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children. For more information, please visit childrensrights.org.

ABOUT BARTON JUVENILE DEFENDER CLINIC AT EMORY UNIVERSITY SCHOOL OF LAW

A clinical offering of the Barton Child Law & Policy Center that serves as an in-house legal clinic dedicated to providing holistic legal representation for children in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. For more information, please visit law.emory.edu/academics/clinics/barton-juvenile-defender-clinic.html.

ABOUT BONDURANT, MIXSON & ELMORE, LLP

Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore, LLP is a powerhouse litigation firm in Atlanta, GA, which routinely has been involved in cases of national significance for over 40 years. The firm can be found online at bmelaw.com.

ABOUT HECHT WALKER JORDAN, P.C.

The attorneys at Hecht Walker Jordan, P.C. have over a century of cumulative experience in a broad variety of specialized practices including corporate, real estate, civil rights and family law serving all 28 counties in the metro Atlanta area and other counties throughout the state of Georgia. The firm provides representation to individuals, small businesses, large corporations, and government bodies. hechtwalker.com