Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Autistic Student

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 5, 2017

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Supreme CourtThe US Supreme Court has ruled that school districts must provide disabled students with the opportunity to make meaningful and “appropriately ambitious” progress in their education.

As NPR reported,

The decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District could have far-reaching implications for the 6.5 million students with disabilities in the United States.

The case involved a boy named Endrew, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit disorder.

As the Court described his situation,

Although Endrew displayed a number of strengths—his teachers described him as a humorous child with a “sweet disposition” who “show[ed] concern[] for friends”—he still “exhibited multiple behaviors that inhibited his ability to access learning in the classroom.” … Endrew would scream in class, climb over furniture and other students, and occasionally run away from school. … He was afflicted by severe fears of common-place things like flies, spills, and public restrooms.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

As the Supreme Court noted,

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) offers States federal funds to assist in educating children with disabilities. The Act conditions that funding on compliance with certain statutory requirements, including the requirement that States provide every eligible child a “free appropriate public education,” or FAPE, by means of a uniquely tailored “individualized education program,” or IEP.

Endrew’s parents felt that his academic and functional progress had stalled. The school district presented the parents with an IEP that resembled those from past years.  So the parents removed Endrew from public school in the fifth grade, and sent him to a specialized private school where he made better progress.

The parents sought compensation from the public school district for the cost of their son’s private school education.  Their claims were denied, and a federal court affirmed that denial. The parents appealed, the Tenth Circuit also affirmed the denial, and the parents appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court held that:

To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

With respect to a child with a disability, the Court held,

A child’s IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement if that is not a reasonable prospect. But that child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.

The Newest Justice

The decision is particularly notable because the newest member of the Supreme Court — Justice Neil Gorsuch — had ruled the opposite way in similar cases, according to NPR.

Gorusch wrote in a similar case involving an autistic child: 

Though IDEA is certainly evidence that Congress intends that States, acting through local school districts, provide assistance to disabled students and their families, the assistance that IDEA mandates is limited in scope. The Act does not require that States do whatever is necessary to ensure that all students achieve a particular standardized level of ability and knowledge. Rather, it much more modestly calls for the creation of individualized programs reasonably calculated to enable the student to make some progress towards the goals within that program.

During confirmation hearings, Gorsuch admitted that his prior decision had been a mistake. As he told Senator John Cornyn of Texas,

I was wrong, Senator, because I was bound by circuit precedent, and I’m sorry.

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