Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia

Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia (1972) was one of two important federal trial court rulings that helped to lay the foundation that eventually led to the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), laws that changed the face of American education. Prior to 1975 and the enactment of these laws, many schools did not offer special education for students with disabilities. As such, millions of students were denied appropriate services or excluded from public education entirely. The other case was Pennsylvania Association of Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1971, 1972).

Facts of the Case

Mills was a class action suit that was brought on behalf of seven children and other similarly situated students who resided in the District of Columbia. The students in the plaintiff class had been identified as having behavioral problems or being mentally retarded, emotionally disturbed, and/or hyperactive. All of the students had been excluded from school or denied educational services that would have addressed the needs that arose from their identified disabilities. The parents and guardians of the students successfully filed suit, arguing that the failure of the school board in the District of Columbia to provide them with a public school education constituted a denial of their right to an education.

The Court’s Ruling

In a painstaking decision, the federal district court in the District of Columbia first made clear that the deprivation suffered by the children clearly violated their right to a public school education under the laws of the District of Columbia. Quoting liberally from Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), the court likened the treatment of the plaintiff students to the segregation outlawed by the Supreme Court in Brown.

The court reasoned that because the children would have been entitled under the school code in the District of Columbia to attend free public schools, each child had a right to such an education. The court explained that the school board’s failure to meet its mandate could not be excused by its argument that there were insufficient funds available to pay for the services that the children needed. Instead, the court was of the opinion that the board’s duty to educate the children had to outweigh its interest in preserving its resources.

The court added that if there were not enough funds available to provide all of the needed programming, then the board had to do its best to apportion the monies in such a way as to ensure that no child was denied the opportunity to benefit from a public school education. In sum, the court pointed out that the inadequacies present in the school system, whether caused by insufficient funding or poor administration, could not be allowed to impact more heavily on students with disabilities. To this end, the court ordered the board to adopt a detailed remedial plan in order to ensure that the children received their right to equal protection under the law.

The court-ordered comprehensive remedial plan included many elements that eventually made their way into the EAHCA/IDEA. Among these provisions, the court order included a provision mandating a free public education for each child with a disability, documentation delineating the individual special education services that would be necessary for each child who was identified as having a disability, the development of due process procedures when students faced suspensions or expulsions from school, the creation of procedures that granted parents the right to challenge the system if they disagreed with any aspect of the placement of their children, and a requirement that children suspected of having disabilities be identified and evaluated.

Julie F. Mead

See also Disabled Persons, Rights of; Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504

Legal Citations

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. 
  • Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia, 348 F. Supp. 866 (D.D.C. 1972). 
  • Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 334 F. Supp 1257 (E.D. Pa. 1971), 343 F. Supp. 279 (E.D. Pa. 1972) 
  • Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a).