High court may put more bite into law for disabled studentsJanuary 11, 2017 7:43pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Wednesday seemed willing to put more bite into a law that requires public schools to help learning-disabled students.

Most of the justices indicated during arguments that school districts must offer more than the bare minimum of services to children with special needs. But they struggled over how to clarify the law without inviting even more litigation between frustrated parents and cash-strapped schools.

The court is considering an appeal from the parents of an autistic teen in Colorado who say their public school did not go far enough in helping their son. They want to be reimbursed for the cost of sending him to private school.

The case could have major implications for millions of disabled students who rely on schools to make special arrangements. School districts warn that imposing higher standards will be too costly and encourage parents to make unrealistic demands.

"If we suddenly adopt a new standard, all over the country, we'll have judges and lawyers and people interpreting it differently," Justice Stephen Breyer said.

The debate centers on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that requires a "free and appropriate public education" for disabled students. The Supreme Court last considered the issue in a 1982 case that said the law requires schools to come up with a plan that gives the student "some educational benefit."

But lower courts have disagreed over exactly what that phrase means and how far a school must go. Some courts say it can be anything greater than a trivial effort, while others have required schools to do more.

Advocacy groups say the confusion has left wide disparities among states in the level of educational benefits that schools offer to children with special needs.

Chief Justice John Roberts told Neal Katyal, representing the Douglas County School District near Denver, that the standard seems to require more than just a minimum effort from schools.

"It says 'some benefit,' but you're reading it as saying 'some' benefit and the other side is reading it as saying some 'benefit,'" Roberts said, to laughter, as he switched his emphasis on the words.

In the case before the court, the boy known only as Endrew F. attended public school outside Denver from kindergarten through fourth grades, where he received specialized instruction to deal with learning and behavioral issues.

In 2010, Endrew's parents decided to send him to private school after saying they were frustrated by his lack of progress. They want to be reimbursed for his tuition — about $70,000 a year — because they claim public school officials didn't do enough to comply with the law.

The Colorado Department of Education denied their claim, saying the school district had satisfied its obligations under the law. The federal appeals court in Denver upheld that decision, ruling that the school district met its duty to provide more than a "de minimus" effort.

The family's attorney, Jeffrey Fisher, argued that the law requires more than "just-above-trivial" benefits. Most of the justices seemed to agree and spent much of the session trying out different words that would convey the right message to lower courts.

Fisher urged the justices to make clear it requires benefits designed "to provide substantially equal educational opportunities."

But Breyer and Justice Elena Kagan said they had problems with the word "equal" since the law focuses on what's best for individual students. Fisher then suggested schools at least had to offer the kind of support that allows a disabled child to progress from grade to grade.

Justice Department lawyer Irv Gornstein, arguing in support of the parents, said the schools' obligation should be described as making "significant progress towards grade-level standards."

Breyer wondered about adding "significant and appropriate." Gornstein said he had no problem with that formulation.

Justice Samuel Alito later said he was frustrated by the "blizzard of words" that could mean anything when read literally.

"What everybody seems to be looking for is the word that has just the right nuance to express this thought," Alito said.

Katyal, the school districts' lawyer, suggested the high court didn't need to clarify anything because the current standard "had bite" in the lower courts.

But Kagan strongly disagreed.

"If somebody said to you, write a standard with bite, I doubt you would come up with the words "more than merely de minimis," she said.

A ruling is expected by the end of June.

Page 1 of 1

More Stories Like This

FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2016 file photo, U.S. Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit, Judge Diane Sykes speaks in Washington. Chicago has lost another round in its effort to restrict where gun ranges can be located within city limits. The U.S. Court of Appeals on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2017 held as unconstitutional ordinances restricting gun ranges to manufacturing areas in Chicago. One of the three judges on the panel was Sykes, who was on a list of 11 judges President-elect Donald Trump made public last year as among those he would consider as candidates for the U.S. Supreme Court. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)
US court cites right to gun-range use, tosses Chicago limits
Study: Texas abortions declined as clinics got farther awayResearchers say abortions declined throughout Texas after a 2013 law forced the closure of clinics in all but the largest cities, and the decline was steeper the farther a woman lived from a remaining clinic
FILE - This April 13, 2016 file photo shows the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. A federal judge said Thursday, Jan. 19, 2017 that he's inclined to allow trial for a lawsuit against two psychologists who designed the CIA's harsh interrogation methods for the war on terror. The American Civil Liberties Union sued the psychologists on behalf of three former detainees, who claim they were tortured in CIA prisons. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
Judge hints at trial for lawsuit on harsh CIA interrogation
The Latest: Chicago disappointed in gun-range rulingChicago officials are expressing disappointment in a federal court ruling that said city restrictions on publicly accessible gun ranges violated the Second Amendment
Judge blocks Texas from cutting off Planned Parenthood fundsA federal judge has temporarily blocked Texas from ousting Planned Parenthood from the state's Medicaid program over secretly recorded videos taken by anti-abortion activists in 2015
Cleveland submits new police crisis intervention policyA new crisis policy for Cleveland police will allow officers with specialized training to refer some people having a mental health or substance abuse crisis to hospitals and treatment facilities rather than arrest them for minor crimes

Related Searches

Related Searches