THE SUPREME COURT of THE UNITED STATES

ENDREW F. v. DOUGLAS COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

On January 11, 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case may be one of the most important special education cases in decades, as it invites the Court to decide what level of educational benefit schools are required to provide to children with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

3/22/2017 Update: Today the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The Bazelon Center applauds this decision, and our full statement is available here.

Click here to read the full decision.

The Facts of the Case:

Endrew F. (Drew) is a student who, like virtually all children with disabilities, can make significant academic progress.  Drew has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). From preschool through fourth grade, Drew attended public school in the Douglas County School District RE-1 in Colorado. Beginning in second grade, Drew engaged in behaviors in school that interfered more and more with learning. The school district developed goals for Drew’s education in his Individualized Education Plan (IEP) but, as he made little or no progress, repeated the same goals from year to year, or abandoned them altogether.  The school never effectively addressed his behaviors, and as a result Drew regressed.  Before he began fifth grade, Drew’s parents withdrew him and enrolled him in a private school. The private school immediately developed a behavior intervention plan that addressed Drew’s specific strengths and needs.  Since then, Drew has flourished and made significant academic progress.

Drew’s parents filed a complaint with the school district seeking reimbursement for their tuition payments to the private school.  Lower federal courts, including the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, have held that all the school district had to do for Drew was provide education and services that gave him a “merely more than de minimis” benefit – and that Douglas County had done that, even though Drew never met most of his educational goals.  Drew and his parents are challenging this decision in the Supreme Court.

The Legal Question:

The IDEA requires schools that receive federal funding to provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) to all children with disabilities. In a case from 1982, Board of Education v. Rowley, the Supreme Court interpreted the FAPE requirement to mean that schools must provide “some educational benefit” to students with disabilities who are meeting grade level expectations.  Although the Court indicated that it was not announcing a universal rule for what schools must do for all students with disabilities, lower federal courts have applied the “Rowley” standard to deny thousands of students with disabilities and their families needed education and services.

In the Supreme Court, Drew and his parents are arguing that the lower courts have misinterpreted the IDEA and Rowley.  Congress has changed the IDEA since the Rowley decision to incorporate the standards-based school reform advanced through other federal education laws, including the No Child Left Behind Act.  These amendments to the IDEA also recognized that the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, established a national goal of equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities.  With Congress’s changes, the IDEA now requires public schools to ensure that students with disabilities receive a quality education that provides equal opportunities for academic achievement – the same high expectations for the achievement of students with disabilities that we have for all students.  A “merely more than de minimis” benefit is not enough.

The Bazelon Center and the law firm Kellogg Huber Hansen co-authored a “friend of the court,” or “amicus” brief in the Supreme Court for former U.S. Department of Education officials responsible for IDEA enforcement and oversight of federal research into how students with disabilities learn, in support of Drew and his parents. The brief explains the advances in special education practice since the enactment of the IDEA, including targeted, individualized instruction and services for students with ASD and other disabilities, provided through tiered systems of support for all students, that schools across the country implement today to help even those students with significant disabilities achieve proficiency in math, language arts, science, and other subjects.  These educational advances are the foundation for the changes Congress made to the IDEA to ensure that public schools help students with disabilities meet high expectations.  The Bazelon Center coordinated the amici effort in the Supreme Court.  We hope that the Supreme Court will issue a decision in Endrew F. that clarifies the changes in the law and recognizes that an “appropriate” education today is one that helps children with disabilities become proficient academically, by the same measures applicable to all students, and successfully transition to a successful adult life.

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