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Even before he was arrested, 17-year-old Michael Garcia was in need of help. He had an auditory processing disorder and language and speech impairment. After he was placed at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall, he attended a class, guaranteed by federal law, for inmates who have learning disabilities.
Then he turned 18. He was transferred to the Los Angeles County Men’s Central Jail, and for the next 19 months he didn’t step foot into a classroom. According to a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), because of his learning needs staff members at the county facility considered him, “a student that no one wanted to teach.”
Garcia’s situation isn’t unique. Learning disabilities are common among juvenile offenders. Garcia’s lawyers estimate that anywhere between 400 and 700 inmates in L.A. County jails need special education classes. Both federal and California state law mandate jails to provide special education until inmates reach the age of 22, yet it’s unclear whether a county’s schools or jails should foot the bill. As a result, many inmates don’t receive the education they are guaranteed by law. And their cases fly under the radar. Garcia decided he wanted to change this.
He decided to sue.
Garcia’s case, which will be heard by the California Supreme Court this summer, has brought new attention to the longstanding contention between school districts and the county jails about which entity is responsible for paying for special education services in jails. The state of California and Los Angeles Unified School have butted heads around this issue since before Garcia decided to fight the problem at the California Supreme Court. Twice, LA Unified was ordered to provide teacher to county jails and twice they have fought the courts to appeal the ruling.
According to CIR, “The state…said it provides special education services only if it finds local agencies are “unwilling or unable” to do so – a circumstance that it said was not the case for students in Los Angeles County jails.”
But Paula Pearlman, Garcia’s lawyer and the Executive Director of the Disability Rights Legal Center, told CIR reporter Joanna Lin, that she believed the state was trying to avoid taking responsibility.
Garcia’s case may once and for all define who pays for these services, at least in L.A. Unified. Even though Garcia himself is currently housed at a non-county jail, so the ruling wouldn’t affect him. But once the court figure out who pays, maybe inmates with learning disabilities will have access to to the services they are already entitled to.