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Supreme Court Issues Ruling on FAPE

Kacie Kefgen

By Kacie Kefgen, MASB Assistant Director of Labor Relations and Legal Services

DashBoard, March 29, 2017

Last week, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1. In the case, Endrew, a student with autism, and his parents filed a complaint against his resident school district, arguing that the district failed to provide Endrew with a free appropriate public education in violation of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.

Endrew had been a student in the Douglas County School district from preschool through fourth grade. By fourth grade, Endrew’s Individualized Education Plan showed little change from one year to the next, and his parents decided to enroll him at Firefly Autism House, a private school specializing in educating children with autism spectrum disorders. Endrew made significant progress at Firefly, both behaviorally and academically. Six months after starting at Firefly, Endrew’s parents met with school district officials, who presented them with a new IEP for their son. The parents rejected the plan and were particularly frustrated by the behavior plan, which was not significantly different than past plans.

A little more than a year later, Endrew’s parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education to be reimbursed for tuition at Firefly. They argued that Endrew had been denied a FAPE because the final IEP presented to them “was not reasonably calculated to enable [him] to receive educational benefits.”1 From the administrative hearing and through the lower courts, the decisions all went against the parents, citing an earlier FAPE case involving a child who was deaf and making grade-level progress.2

The Supreme Court distinguished that earlier case from Endrew’s situation, pointing out the fundamental difference that the earlier case presented a child who was making grade-level progress, but whose parents wanted a full-time deaf interpreter rather than audio enhancement. Here, Endrew was not making grade-level progress, so the legal analysis of FAPE is different.

The Supreme Court, in Endrew’s case, concluded that the IDEA “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”3 The Court declined to elaborate on what appropriate progress would be, and stated that the courts ought to show deference to school officials “based on the application of expertise and the exercise of [their] judgment” when deciding future cases. Furthermore, courts should expect that school officials are able to offer cogent and responsive explanations “for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.”4

School districts should work with their district legal counsel about how to develop and implement IEP’s in light of this case. You may also consider attending our next School Law Workshop, featuring attorneys from Lusk Albertson, who will share their analysis of this and the recent Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools case.

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1 Endrew F v Douglas Co Sch Dist RE-1, ___US___ (2017) (quoting Rowley, 458 U. S., at 207, 102 S. Ct. 3034, 73 L. Ed. 2d 690).

2 Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U. S. 176 (1982).

3 Endrew F v Douglas Co Sch Dist RE-1, ___US___ (2017)

4 Id.