The United States Supreme Court announced Thursday it will hear the case of an autistic Douglas County School District student whose parents say he wasn't provided with the level of public education required by federal law. They are seeking reimbursement for the child's tuition and related expenses at a private school.
The question centers on what educational benefits are guaranteed to a child with disabilities by a public school under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The case, which dates to 2010, will likely not be heard by the Supreme Court until at least 2017.
The student involved is identified only as Endrew F. in court documents. He attended Summit View Elementary in Highlands Ranch.
The suit was filed through his parents, Joseph F. and Jennifer F., according to the documents. The attorney for the family is listed as Jack D. Robinson, with Spies, Powers and Robinson, P.C., of Denver.
Robinson said the case would prove that the standard of a "free appropriate public education" is set too low, and that students with disabilities deserve a meaningful education.
"The Douglas County School District has set the bar woefully low," he said.
Robinson said he has never argued a case before the Supreme Court, but will be working with co-counsel that has experience doing so.
The case will likely begin with oral arguments in mid-January and have a decision in March or April, Robinson said.
He said he is confident in the merits of the case and believes they could have a nationwide impact on schools and students with special needs.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, public schools must provide children with disabilities a "free appropriate public education."
The mechanism by which schools meet this requirement is the individualized education program, or IEP, according to court documents. IEPs were established by the case Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley in 1982, a case out of Peekskill, New York. Each IEP must be "reasonably calculated to confer an educational benefit on the child."
Endrew F. was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2 and with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder a year after that, court documents say. His autism affects his cognitive functioning, language and reading skills, and his social and adaptive abilities.
He attended Douglas County schools from preschool through fourth grade. During that time, he received special-education services, including IEPs tailored to meet his unique needs.
"At the conclusion of an especially rocky fourth-grade year, Drew's parents, Joseph and Jennifer F., decided Drew was not making any meaningful progress and rejected the IEP proposed by the District for fifth grade," the documents state. "As a result, they withdrew him from the District and instead enrolled him at Firefly Autism House, a private school (in Denver) that specializes in educating autistic children. The parents then turned to the District for reimbursement of Drew's private-school tuition and related expenses."
In August 2015, the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the school district did provide a "a free appropriate public education."
"We find sufficient support in the record to affirm the findings of the administrative law judge that the child received some educational benefit while in the District's care and that is enough to satisfy the District's obligation to provide a free appropriate public education," the court wrote in its ruling. "...the District did not violate the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act... and is not required to reimburse the cost of the student's private school education."
The school district's denial of reimbursement had been upheld in administrative court and federal district court before being affirmed in appeals court.
School district officials would not comment on specific matters related to the case Thursday afternoon.
"It would be inappropriate to discuss the specifics of the case while it is still being litigated, but the court's decision today is not a decision on the merits, and we look forward to addressing the issues before the Court," the school district said in a statement.
Board of Education President Meghann Silverthorn said the board would need to speak to the district's legal counsel before commenting on the case in detail, but said she "looks forward to the situation being resolved."
"We all want to provide every child with the best education we possibly can," Silverthorn said.