Beyond the Point of Exhaustion: Reforming the Exhaustion Requirement to Protect Access to IDEA Rights in Juvenile Facilities

By Abbe Petuchowski

Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), in conjunction with other federal and state laws, to recognize a substantive right to “a free appropriate public education” for youth with disabilities and to establish a process to make this right accessible. Although the IDEA guarantees youth in juvenile facilities the same legal rights to special education services as students attending traditional public schools, correctional and education agencies across the country struggle to provide students in these facilities with special education services that meet these legal mandates. When violations occur, the IDEA imposes a threshold requirement that families exhaust administrative remedies before bringing a claim in state or federal court. Courts have interpreted this requirement, and especially its exceptions for systemic allegations of IDEA violations, in different and unpredictable ways.

This Note analyzes the IDEA’s application of the exhaustion requirement in the context of class action claims against juvenile facilities in federal courts. Part I outlines the substantive rights and procedural protections under the IDEA. Part II examines how structural features of juvenile facilities impede access to IDEA rights. Part III analyzes how the exhaustion requirement and its exceptions interact with the juvenile justice context to further deny access to IDEA rights. To address these concerns, Part IV proposes a range of reforms to the exhaustion requirement for allegations of systemic IDEA violations in juvenile facilities.

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