The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) expressly allows students with disabilities eligible under the IDEA to bring civil actions against their school districts not only for violations of the IDEA but also for violations of civil rights under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”) provided the students first exhaust their IDEA remedies before filing their civil actions in court. However, many courts apply this exhaustion requirement to students who are covered only by Section 504 and the ADA who are ineligible or not identified under the IDEA. This Note argues that the courts’ extension of the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement to students covered only by Section 504 and the ADA misinterprets and misapplies the provision. The Note provides the proper interpretation of the IDEA’s exhaustion requirement with the bright line rule that the exhaustion requirement only applies to students covered by Section 504 and the ADA who are also covered by, or seeking coverage from, the IDEA. Otherwise, students who are covered only by Section 504 and ADA—but not by the IDEA—are not subject to the exhaustion requirement. This interpretation is supported by a discussion of IDEA hearings officers’ jurisdiction over purely Section 504 and ADA claims, the differences between the procedural and substantive rights of the IDEA and those of Section 504 and the ADA, and the legislative history of the IDEA’s exhaustion provision. This Note also discusses the policy arguments relating to administrative exhaustion of claims by students with disabilities and contains recommendations for clarifying this muddled issue.
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