In some circles, Sarah Grace Morris is a celebrity, especially in circles where her brother, the rapper known as MattyB, is a star. Sarah Grace has her own YouTube channel with, at last count, 217,015 subscribers. The page-view count for a video she shot with her brother stood Friday at 61,886,158.
But in an ornate courtroom in downtown Atlanta, Sarah Grace was simply “S.M.,” a 10-year-old with Down syndrome whose parents are suing the Gwinnett County school system over her placement in special-education classrooms.
The issue before a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was relatively simple: Did the Gwinnett schools violate Sarah Grace’s rights by insisting she spend about half of every school day in special education, segregated from children who have no disabilities?
Disputes like this are not at all uncommon. Parents often want schools to make accommodations – special technology, personalized instruction, a one-on-one paraprofessional – to help their disabled children succeed despite their limitations.
Few cases, however, get so far as a federal appeals court, one stop shy of the U.S. Supreme Court. Fewer still attract attention from thousands of fans around the world.
MattyB – Sarah Grace’s 13-year-old brother, Matthew – embodies celebrity in the age of social media. His rap videos (devoid of the profanity and sexual images associated with the genre) took off on YouTube. He became the object of online fan clubs from Indonesia to Brazil. And now, when he’s not attending middle school, he spends his time on tour, recording songs with titles like “My Oh My” and “That Girl Is Mine,” and promoting his memoir (“That’s A Rap,” scheduled for release in June and already No. 1 on Amazon’s children’s rap and hip hop list).
He shares news of his sister’s legal battle with his 740,000 Twitter followers and his 8 million Facebook fans. “Please #PRAY for my little sister … and my family,” he posted last week in announcing the oral arguments at the 11th Circuit. "#StopSegregation."
His devotion to his sister has been widely noted. The Global Down Syndrome Foundation featured MattyB and Sarah Grace on the cover of its Down Syndrome World magazine last fall: “YouTube’s Dynamic Brother-Sister Duo.”
The siblings’ celebrity did not come up during the oral arguments Friday, which focused on mostly narrow issues surrounding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Torin Togut, the lawyer arguing Sarah Grace’s case, said the Gwinnett schools “placed her in a segregated classroom for children with intellectual disabilities.”
“She was not cognitively impaired at that point,” Togut said. School officials, he said, failed to consider all options – particularly a full-time assignment to regular classrooms with whatever assistance Sarah Grace needed to succeed.
“She was highly functional and had been successful,” Togut said.
Victoria Sweeney, a lawyer for the Gwinnett schools, said Sarah Grace had performed better in special education than in classes with students without disabilities. In regular education classes, Sweeney said, Sarah Grace depended heavily on a paraprofessional assigned to her, which isolated her from other students.
“It’s very telling, the amount of support this student needs,” Sweeney said.
Considering every alternative, Sweeney told the judges, would have been “extremely burdensome.”
Sarah Grace’s parents, Blake and Tawny Morris, removed her from public school last fall. Gwinnett school officials intended to move Sarah Grace to a different school, far from the family’s home, with a greater focus on special education. She now attends a private school, assigned to a regular classroom where about half the children have disabilities. She has performed well academically and socially, her mother said.
As usual in oral arguments, the judges did not indicate how they would rule, or when. But Judge Adalberto Jordan suggested Sarah Grace’s parents should have been open to compromise about whether she spent time in special education.
“Your position seems to be an all-or-nothing one,” where disputes “have to be resolved in favor of the parents,” Jordan told Togut. “I’m not sure that’s how the act works.”
Both sides, Jordan said, were trying to determine the best environment for Sarah Grace to thrive.
“In that sort of predictive world,” Jordan said, “there are no easy answers.”