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Student with Special Needs Gets Second Shot at Section 504 Claim

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 15, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that a student with special needs who sued the Waco Independent School District for failing to her prevent sexual abuse at school should get another shot at making her case.

The court's ruling, however, highlights the importance of a well-pleaded claim. When remanding the matter, the Judge Haynes noted that the pleading was "not a model of detail" and suggested that the student replead.

Andricka Stewart "suffers from mental retardation, speech impairment, and hearing impairment" and qualifies as a person with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act. While attending A.J. Moore Academy as a special education student, there was an incident involving sexual contact between Stewart and another student. The school district modified Stewart's Individualized Education Program (IEP) to provide that she be separated from male students and remain under close supervision while at school.

Despite the IEP modifications, Stewart claims that she was involved in three other instances of "sexual abuse" at school over the next two years. She was suspended after two of those incidents.

Stewart sued under §504 of the Rehabilitation Act for the District's alleged "gross mismanagement" of her IEP and failure to reasonably accommodate her disabilities. She asserted that the suspensions meted out after two of the incidents deprived her of educational benefits. The district court dismissed her action, concluding that her claims attempted to hold the district liable for "the actions of a private actor."

On appeal to the Fifth Circuit, Stewart borrowed from Title IX case law and argued that she can state a claim under §504 for the District's deliberate indifference to disability-related student-on-student sexual assault, in addition to "gross mismanagement" of her IEP. She also claimed that the District failed "to provide her with the necessary accommodations to prevent repeated sexual abuse by her peers" and placed her in a dangerous environment while failing to protect her.

In the District's opinion, Stewart had essentially packaged a dispute over its legitimate disciplinary and educational decisions as a civil-rights action. The District responded with three general arguments:

  1. Stewart didn't connect the alleged sexual abuse solely to her disability.
  2. The District was not deliberately indifferent because it investigated the alleged incidents and took action that it deemed appropriate under the circumstances.
  3. Stewart failed to state a claim that the District acted in bad faith or with "gross misjudgment."

The appellate court disagreed with the District.

After reviewing the record, the Fifth Circuit concluded that Stewart had plausibly stated that the District acted with gross misjudgment in failing to further modify her IEP, and reversed and remanded the district court's dismissal of her §504 claim.

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