U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Helps Students with Special Needs

Monday, April 17, 2017

Judy2On March 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s unique circumstances (Endrew F. v. Douglas County Sch. Dist. 2017 Lexis 2025)  (“Endrew F.”).

This decision represents an increased duty on school districts to provide an educational benefit that is more than merely de minimis as previously defined by the U.S. Supreme Court in Board of Ed of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dis. v. Rowley 458 U.S. 176 (1982) (“Rowley”).

Practically speaking, if a student’s IEP goals are the same year after year, Endrew F. gives authority to argue that the IEP does not offer a FAPE because it doesn’t allow for appropriate progress.

Endrew is a child with autism who received annual IEPs from his local school district from preschool through fourth grade. When the parents received the IEP for fifth grade which was substantially similar to prior IEPs, the parents removed him from public school and enrolled him in a specialized private school where he made significant progress. The parents sought reimbursement from the District for costs of the private school.

Three courts denied the claim, ultimately saying that, under the Supreme Court’s decision in Rowley, a child’s IEP is adequate as long as it is calculated to confer an educational benefit that is merely more than de minimis.

In Endrew F., the Supreme Court addressed children who, because of their disability, cannot reasonably be expected to progress from grade to grade in a fully integrated setting.  In those circumstances, the Supreme Court observed that the IEP does not need to aim for grade-level advancement. However, the “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances … the goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

The “de minimis” standard was rejected in Endrew F. because instruction that aims so low “would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly … awaiting the time the they were old enough to drop out’.”

The Supreme Court concluded that IDEA requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

  • “Reasonably calculated” means that the IEP is a fact-intensive exercise which is informed not only by the expertise of school administrators but also by input from parents or guardians. The IEP must be reasonable, not ideal.
  • Making progress is essential, and the progress must be appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. The program must address the child’s unique needs taking into account the child’s present levels, disability and potential for growth.
  • The program must be appropriately ambitious in light of the child’s circumstances. “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

This ruling supports a parent’s desire to see their child make true progress. De minimus is NOT enough. Look back at goals from prior IEPs…compare them to current IEP goals and progress reports… and make sure that your child is being given the chance to meet challenging objectives based on his unique needs.

- Posted by Attorney Franklin J. Hickman

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