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September 01, 2023

Lawsuit settlement allows Pennsylvania students with disabilities another year in school

Special education services will now be offered until age 22; A Lower Merion student had sued the state Department of Education to change the policy

Pennsylvania students with disabilities now are eligible to attend school until age 22 after a lawsuit filed on behalf of a Lower Merion student reached a settlement with the state.

The settlement of the class-action lawsuit was announced Thursday. It has resulted in the Pennsylvania Department of Education changing the age when public school students no longer qualify for free special education services. Previously, students with disabilities were qualified until the end of the school year in which they turned 21 years old. 

The new policy is retroactive for students who turned 21 during the 2022-2023 school year. The Department of Education has sent letters to caregivers and families of those students, informing them the new age-out limit is 22 years old. The Department of Education has also informed superintendents and school administrators about the change, advising them to contact families, too.

The change takes effect Tuesday. Each year, there are about 17,000 special education students in Pennsylvania between the ages of 18-21, and approximately 300 of them are 21 years old, the Associated Press reported. Among the special education services provided to students with disabilities are occupational therapy and speech therapy.

"The PA Department of Education's new policy complies with federal law and allows students to receive the support they are entitled to until they turn 22," the Public Interest Law Center and Berney & Sang, the law firm representing the plaintiff, said in a statement.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of a 19-year-old student with multiple disabilities in the Lower Merion School District. It argued that Pennsylvania was not complying with the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees disabled students the right to receive special education services until they earn a high school diploma or turn 22 years old.  

In school, the 19-year-old works with personal-care assistants and receives occupational therapy, speech therapy and transition services to help him prepare for adulthood. Prior to the age change, he would have become ineligible for special education services in the summer 2025. Now he is eligible until February 2026 when he turns 22. 

"For children with significant disabilities who are not yet ready to transition out of high school, another school year can make a huge difference in their lives," attorney David Berney, a partner in Berney & Sang, said when the lawsuit was filed earlier this year.

In similar lawsuits filed in other states, federal courts have enforced state to comply with the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

On Friday, the Department of Education spokesperson Taj Magruder said the state is "committed to ensuring that every student receives a high-quality education. Building on that commitment, PDE has updated its policies to better serve special education students."

The Department of Education's website has been updated with information to reenroll eligible students in public schools.