Wednesday, 19 April 2017 22:39

A Unanimous Supreme Court Raises the Bar in Favor of Kids with Special Needs

Written by  Mariann Crincoli, Esq.

supremeCourt

In an 8-0 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the de minimis standard as it relates to the educational benefit that students must receive under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Instead, the Court reiterated the longstanding Rowley standard in ruling that in order for a school to “meet its substantive obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, a school must offer an “individualized education program” reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

In the case, entitled Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, Endrew’s parents believed that he was not making any progress, as reflected by his “individualized education program,” which set forth essentially the same goals and objectives each year. The District offered an IEP to the parents for Endrew’s fifth grade year and it was similar to the IEPs that preceded it. The parents did not believe it was appropriate, so they unilaterally placed him in a private school and sought reimbursement from the school district. The lower courts ruled against the parents. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, relying upon the same lower standard as the court below, also ruled in favor of the District, holding that an IEP is adequate as long as it is intended to provide “merely more than de minimis” benefits.

 

The Supreme Court disagreed with the de minimus test and applied a more stringent standard. In so doing, they remanded the case back to the 10th Circuit for it to apply the tougher standard.

Here are the important takeaways from Endrew F:

  • The U.S. Supreme Court held that in order to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. This means that school must implement an IEP that is reasonably calculated to remediate and, if appropriate, accommodate the child’s disabilities so that the child can “make progress in the general education curriculum,” commensurate with his non-disabled peers, taking into account the child’s potential.
  • The Supreme Court emphasized that the focus at the core of the IDEA is on the particular child and that the instruction offered be “specially designed” to meet a child’s “unique needs” through an “individualized education program.” There is no one size fits all when it comes to IEPs.
  • The Supreme Court struck down the de minimus standard of progress. A child’s edu­cational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances. Every child, including children with disabilities, should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.
  • The Supreme Court declined to define what appropriate progress will look like in an IEP and reiterated that throughout the IEP process public school representatives and parents will determine what level of progress should be sought in an IEP.
  • The Supreme Court ruled that in disputes about FAPE, reviewing courts will expect school districts to offer a logical and responsive explanation for their decisions as to how an IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.

First Case Decided Following Endrew F Emphasizes Significance of Procedural and Substantive Rights of Parents

Just days following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Endrew F, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of parents of a student with special needs in M.C. v. Antelope Valley Union High School District. In that case the parents signed an IEP document and authorized goals and services but denied that the IEP provided FAPE. The parents subsequently filed for due process alleging procedural and substantive violations of law. The ALJ and District Court ruled in favor of the District but the Appeals Court reversed and remanded and noted that the ALJ disregarded some evidence and did not address all issues.

The Court addressed the risk of procedural errors at IEP meetings when parties are not represented by counsel and opined that, compliance with the IDEA’s procedural safeguards “is essential to ensuring that every eligible child receives a FAPE, and those procedures which provide for meaningful parent participation are particularly important.” The parents alleged that the IEP document did not accurately represent TVI (teacher of the visually impaired) services that were to be provided to the student, failed to specify the particular assistive technology devices that were to be provided to the student and that the District failed to file an Answer to the Due Process Petition.

Subsequent to the IEP meeting (approximately one month later), the District alleged to have amended the IEP unilaterally to correct the provision of TVI services. The District never provided the parents notice that they were revising the IEP nor did they share a revised IEP with the parents. The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the lower courts that the parents waived the argument relative to this procedural violation. Moreover, the Court held that when a school district fails to file a timely answer, the ALJ must not go forward with the hearing. Rather, it must order a response and shift the cost of the delay to the school district, regardless of who is ultimately the prevailing party.

The Court also emphasized the importance of the IEP document, likening it to a contract between the parties. The Court found that unilateral amendment of the IEP is a “per se procedural violation of the IDEA because it vitiates the parents’ right to participate at every

step of the IEP drafting process”. The Court held that “the District’s failure to identify the AT devices that M.C. required rendered the IEP useless as a blueprint for enforcement.”

The Court found that because the District denied the parent an opportunity to participate in the IEP drafting process by unilaterally revising the IEP, and because the IEP as initially drafted did not provide the parent with an accurate offer of the TVI services provided to M.C., the District committed two procedural violations of the IDEA. Regarding the question of whether these violations resulted in prejudice to the student, the court reasoned that, “incurring unnecessary legal fees is, of course, a form of prejudice that denies a student and his parents an educational benefit.”

Regarding the parents’ substantive arguments that the District’s IEP failed to provide FAPE, the Appeals Court remanded the case so that the lower court could apply the heightened standard set forth in Endrew F.

The M.C. case reiterates the significance of the IEP process including parental participation in IEP meetings. It also serves as a reminder that no IEP should be signed if it does not accurately reflect the agreement reached between the parties at an IEP meeting.

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