Students with disabilities in Pennsylvania will get more time in school under settlement

Under the new policy, students will be eligible to receive free services until they turn 22, rather than aging out of the program the summer after they turn 21.

Students walking in the hall at school.

Students walk through Upper Darby High School, Wednesday, April 12, 2023, in Drexel Hill, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Students with disabilities in Pennsylvania will now receive free support through the public education system for an additional year beyond what current policy dictates.

Under a settlement announced Thursday, the state’s Department of Education will change its policy to allow students with disabilities to continue in K-12 public education until they turn 22. Previously, students would age out of the program at the end of the school year during which they turned 21.

Students who turned 21 during the 2022-23 school year and were considered to have aged out will also have the option to re-enroll in public school this year, according to the settlement.

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The new policy takes effect Sept. 5 and will continue offering students support services to help them transition into adulthood, as well as supports such as speech therapy and occupational therapy. Each year, there are about 17,000 special education students in Pennsylvania between the ages of 18-21 — approximately 300 of whom are 21 — according to the attorneys that filed the case.

Lawyers representing a 19-year-old student and his family filed a federal class action suit in July. It argued that the state’s policy failed to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which states that services should continue until a student receives a diploma, or turns 22.

The student — who has multiple disabilities and receives occupational therapy, speech therapy and transition services — would have aged out of the program in the summer of 2025, following his 21st birthday in February. Under the new policy, he will be able to receive support until February 2026, adding six months of additional time to access the free services.

“This is a significant step forward for young adults with disabilities in Pennsylvania,” his attorneys, who work for the Public Interest Law Center as well as Berney & Sang, said in a statement. “We look forward to working with them to ensure that students with disabilities are able to receive the support they deserve to prepare for the next stage in their lives.”

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Messages seeking comment were left with the state’s Department of Education.

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