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Brief History of Special Education Court Cases

Just as the 1970’s began the passing of legislation for children with disabilities it was also the start of some of its most important court cases.  Two cases in particular were the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children (PARC) v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 343 Fed. Supp. 279, (1972) and Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia, 348 F. Supp. 866 (1972).  In both PARC and Mills the judges struck down local laws that excluded children with disabilities from schools.  They established that children with a disability have a right to a public education and access to an education.

The first special education Supreme Court case was the Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982).  Amy Rowley was a bright first grader who was also deaf.  While the school district initially decided to fund an interpreter to attend class with Amy they later changed their mind.  The parents took the District to due process and lost so they continued their fight to the federal courts.  The parents won in the U.S. Courts and later the U.S. Court of Appeals.  The District appealed to the Supreme Court.  While, Amy lost in the Supreme Court it set the standard for what is a Free Appropriate Public Education.   The ruling provided children with disabilities access to public schools that also provided a basic floor of opportunity.  Not the best education but one where the child has passing grades in classes and is advancing to higher grades.

The next major court decision had to do with the definition of related services.  It came from Irving Independent School District v. Tatro, 468 U.S. 883 (1984).  Amber Tatro had cerebral palsy and needed to be catheterized every few hours.  While the District agreed to provide special education they refused to do the cleaning necessary for Amber to attend school.  This landmark case defined the scope of related services and created the medical exception rule.  The District must provide all supportive services necessary unless a physician is needed to provide the service.  Since, a nurse can provide the service needed for Amber they must provide it.

In Burlington School Committee v. Massachusetts Department of Education, 471 U.S. 359 (1985) the ruling gave the parent a right to reimbursement of private school tuition in certain situations.  If the School District’s offer didn’t meet the definition of FAPE and the parent’s private school placement did give FAPE then they could get reimbursed.  The parent’s who privately place their children and seek reimbursement do it at their own financial risk.

The only discipline case the Supreme Court has ever heard was Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305 (1988).  It removed a school’s unilateral authority to suspend or expel a student with an IEP for more than 10 days unless there is evidence of weapons, drugs, or serious bodily injury.  The school must get a ruling from a hearing officer or court. 

In Florence County School District Four v. Shannon Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1993) the Supreme Court decided as long as the parents meet the test for reimbursement established in Burlington parents have a right to reimbursement even if the private school is not a non-public school certified by the State.

In Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F., 526 U.S. 66 (1999) the Supreme Court once again looked at related services and decided cost is not a factor.  If it’s needed to attend school and doesn’t meet the medical exception test the School must provide it.

In Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49 (2005) the Supreme Court decided that the burden of proof is on the party who files.

In Jacob Winkelman v. Parma City School District, 550 U.S. 516 (2007) the Supreme Court decided parents may pursue IDEA claims on their own behalf.  These rights are independent of their child’s rights.

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