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Douglas County School District

Supreme Court rules against Douglas County School District in case of special-needs student

Court expands definition of “free appropriate public education”


A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision March 22 regarding the Douglas County School district will have ramifications for special needs students across the country.

The court has sided with the parents of an autistic DCSD student who say their child wasn't provided the level of public education required by federal law.

In the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said that it is not enough for school districts to offer minimal instruction for special needs children. The school programs must be "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances."

“This morning, the U.S. Supreme Court issued an unanimous opinion setting forth a new legal standard that schools throughout the country must meet to educate students with special needs. In DCSD, we are ever dedicated to the education of all of our 67,000 students. We respect the decision of the Supreme Court Justices and we are confident that the work we do for our students already meets this higher standard,” Douglas County School District Legal Counsel William Trachman said in a statement. “Notably, the Court did not hold that Douglas County School District failed to meet the new standard, or say that DCSD can't proceed to prove that it met that standard in the Endrew F. matter.  Indeed, in this case, the Douglas County School District offered an appropriate Individualized Education Plan and we look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”

The parents were seeking reimbursement of $70,000 for the child's tuition and related expenses at a private school.

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, identified only as Joseph F. and Jennifer F. in court documents. The attorney for the family is listed as Jack D. Robinson, with Spies, Powers and Robinson, P.C., of Denver.

The question centered on what educational benefits are guaranteed to a child with disabilities by a public school under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The case dates to 2010.

"When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing 'merely more than de minimis' progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all," Roberts wrote in the decision. "For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to 'sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to 'drop out.' "

The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, guarantees a "free appropriate public education" to all students with disabilities.

The court decision expands the definition of what "appropriate" means.

"It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not," Roberts wrote.

Roberts wrote that the nature of the IEP process, from the initial consultation through state administrative proceedings, ensures that parents and school representatives "will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child's IEP should pursue" and by the time any dispute reaches court, school authorities will have had a complete opportunity to bring their expertise and judgment to bear on areas of disagreement.

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.

In August 2015, the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the school district did provide a "a free appropriate public education."


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