Supreme Court Expands Rights of Special Education Students

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous decision on March 21, 2017, that schools must do more than provide a “merely more than de minimus” education program for students with disabilities.

THE RULING
The decision is the result of a case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District in which the parents of a Colorado boy with autism sued their school district. After spending four years in the district, the boy’s parents felt his progress had stalled–his IEP goals and objectives were largely carried over from year to year. The parents then placed their son in a private school and sought reimbursement. In his ruling, Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote, “Within months, Endrew’s behavior improved significantly, permitting him to make a degree of academic progress that had eluded him in public school.”The case had been previously rejected by an administrative law judge, a federal district court, and the 10th Circuit before going before the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the family.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing a ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” wrote Justice Roberts. “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,’” he added, quoting from key 1982 Supreme Court precedent on special education, Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, that also dealt with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“The IDEA demands more,” the chief justice said. “It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

WHAT IT MEANS
The SCOTUS ruling provides a tremendous opportunity for schools and school systems to be proactive in providing programming that can and will significantly reduce or avoid costs associated with meeting the needs of ASD learners. The ruling also calls into question the level, depth, and objectives of IEP goals with respect to educational attainment, progress, and improvement. Simply put, such goals and those actions, strategies, and learning activities cannot be of the lowest standard. Rather, IEP-supported students must have services of a higher standard to ensure they are, in fact, progressing in their education.

The impact of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District may be significant if schools do not seize the opportunity to adjust, amend, or add services that will reduce the number of requests by parents to have their ASD learner attend private or specialty schools to have their educational needs met.

Lastly, the burden is on the schools to demonstrate they have, in practice, programming that authentically meets the needs of the ASD learner.

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