The suit, filed in April 2006, was settled late last month when the School for the Deaf and the Department of Education agreed to offer a special-needs day class to deaf and hard-of-hearing children with moderate to severe developmental disabilities at the deaf school's Fremont campus.
The school, which currently does not have a curriculum designed specifically for autistic children, had wanted to place the student, whose initials are J.C., full time in a program run by the Fremont school district for pupils with severe disabilities, according to the original complaint.
J.C.'s parents objected, however, because the program was designed for hearing students. They wanted their daughter to remain at a school where she could communicate with teachers and peers in her primary language, American Sign Language.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act states that all students with disabilities are entitled to a "free and appropriate public education." Schools are obligated to provide special accommodations so that students with disabilities can receive, as much as possible, the same quality of education as nondisabled pupils.
Putting J.C. in a program for hearing students would cut off her primary mode of communication, thereby stifling her development, said Bill Koski, an attorney for the plaintiffs and the director of Stanford Law School's Youth and Education Law Project, a clinic where law students work on cases on a pro bono basis.
"A major part of any kind of learning is communication. ... Communication directly withpeers social interaction and the like is especially important for people with autism," he said.
The School for the Deaf offers a class for children with mild disabilities, but this will be the first time it will offer a program for students with more severe developmental disabilities.
"I'm very much looking forward to this being a new chapter in the way the (Department of Education) thinks about how to work with deaf children with moderate to severe disabilities," Koski said.
"The idea is to try to develop a model of a way to work with a very difficult-to-serve population," he added.
Ronald Kadish, director of the California Department of Education's state special schools and services division, said the department is in the process of looking for an instructor or two to teach the new class, which is designed for deaf students ages 15 through 22. The class is scheduled to open by January.
Kadish rejected a claim in the lawsuit that the School for the Deaf and California Department of Education had discriminated against J.C. by using her disabilities as a basis for recommending she be placed at another school.
"I don't believe we felt we were discriminating. We felt a different program was more suitable, given her educational needs," he said. "But (now that we've) reached the settlement agreement, we are going to do everything we can to develop a program and make it work as successfully as we can."
As part of the agreement, J.C., who is enrolled in classes through the Fremont school district, will be placed in the new program at the deaf school for at least three years. Also, the Department of Education will pay $196,500 to J.C.'s attorneys a fraction of the actual costs incurred, Koski said.
Besides the School for the Deaf and the California Department of Education, the Fremont school district originally was named as a defendant in the suit.
Claims against Fremont Unified were dismissed in July when the plaintiffs and the school district reached a separate settlement, in which the district agreed to adhere to any judgment in the case. In settling, neither party admitted to any wrongdoing.
Staff writer Linh Tat covers education for The Argus. She can be reached at 510-353-7010 or firstname.lastname@example.org.