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The Law Blogger is a law-related blog that informs and discusses current matters of legal interest to readers of The Oakland Press and to consumers of legal services in the community. We hope readers will  find it entertaining but also informative. The Law Blogger does not, however, impart legal advice, as only attorneys are licensed to provide legal counsel.
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Thursday, March 30, 2017

SCOTUS Helps Underdog Students

Like the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C., written opinions appear at this point in the High Court's term. In the last month, SCOTUS issued two unanimous opinions that greatly assist disadvantaged students obtain free and appropriate public education.

The first case, from Michigan, involves a service dog named Wonder; our associate, Laura Nieusma, set the stage in her post from last June when SCOTUS first granted certiorari. The other case, from Colorado, significantly bolsters the rights of millions of learning disabled students in a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts.

In the case of Wonder, the parents of a kindergartner wanted their daughter, who has cerebral palsy, to attend school with her service dog. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that when families bring federal actions under the Americans With Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act, they need not jump through the administrative hoops of the more complex Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Michigan school district asserted that the student's human aide could do everything the service dog could do and more. Respondents also argued that the dog was a significant distraction to the other students.

A motion for summary judgment filed by the school, asserting that the parents were limited to the administrative procedures of the IDE, was granted; the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.

Justice Elena Kagan authored the opinion, reversing the Sixth Circuit on technical procedural grounds and remanding the case to the trial court. On remand, the Supreme Court sought clarification as to whether the family availed themselves of any available administrative remedies. Not a complete win, but much better than the slap in the face the family received by the trial court.

At this point, however, the continued legal battle is a matter of principle for the family. The girl has moved-on through her elementary education, presumably without the aid of her service dog, while this case has made its way to the SCOTUS.

In the Colorado case, Chief Justice Roberts held that schools are required to offer special education programs that meet higher standards. The unanimous ruling held that minimal instruction for disabled students is insufficient; programs must be designed to allow students to progress academically, despite their learning disabilities.

The case arose when the parents of an autistic teenager sued, claiming their son's school did not provide a sufficient curriculum to foster academic progress. Under the federal IDE, a free and appropriate public education is required.

Chief Justice Roberts' opinion held that while deference is granted to school administrators to fashion specific special needs programs, those programs must be, "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances."

Fall-out from the unanimous opinion was rather immediate; showing-up the very day the opinion was announced. Judge Neal Gorsuch was questioned about the new higher standard during his Senate confirmation hearing; the higher standard replaces a lower standard that Judge Gorsuch adopted in an earlier similar case and that was favored by the Trump Administration's controversial Education Secretary Betsy Devos.

Moving forward, programs designed to foster mere de minimus progress from year to year will be subject to claims under the IDE. This is good for the underdogs who need to progress and thrive within the framework of our free appropriate public education.

Post #583

Clarkston Legal

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Friday, March 24, 2017

The Last Mile Radio Show

TLM participant Chris Schuhmaker
Last week, SiriusXM announced a new documentary about life behind bars in California's San Quentin penitentiary. The Last Mile Radio focuses on the "tech accelerator" program at the prison that teaches inmates computer coding, entrepreneurship and other business skills.

With the U.S. claiming 25% of the world's prison population, the question the program seeks to answer for inmates is: what will you do when you get back to the world?

The mission of the Last Mile is to change the lives of the incarcerated through technology. Entry-level coding jobs can pay as high as $20 per hour.

Started back in 2010, program graduates who have been paroled have an incredible zero percent recidivism. Some of the graduates of the program have gone on to success in the Silicon Valley.

Many of the program participants are serving long sentences; 25 years to life in some cases. Others were first incarcerated as teenagers with no real educational foundation.

All of the participants seek a chance at redemption. Many inmates seek that redemption through spending their time in prison at a job.

Prison labor is required in America. Since 1979, inmates have worked for low wages -less than a dollar per hour- for the benefit of private companies. Many of the official seals we observe in government buildings, both federal and state, are manufactured via prison labor.

Of course, prison labor is political. While President Obama issued regulations to phase-out federal contracting with private companies for prison labor, the new Attorney General cancelled that directive, indicating that prisons were "open for business".

For their part, the inmates seem to value their jobs. For them, their low wage is less significant than the value they place on being productive.

The Last Mile Radio spotlights a program that goes right to the cutting edge. Computer coding jobs are hot; they pay well.

We here at the Law Blogger applaud these types of innovative programs that seek to turn a negative into a positive.

Post #582

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