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Thursday, March 30, 2017

SCOTUS Helps Underdog Students

Like the cherry blossoms in Washington D.C., written opinions appear at this point in the High Court's term. In the last month, SCOTUS issued two unanimous opinions that greatly assist disadvantaged students obtain free and appropriate public education.

The first case, from Michigan, involves a service dog named Wonder; our associate, Laura Nieusma, set the stage in her post from last June when SCOTUS first granted certiorari. The other case, from Colorado, significantly bolsters the rights of millions of learning disabled students in a unanimous opinion authored by Chief Justice John Roberts.

In the case of Wonder, the parents of a kindergartner wanted their daughter, who has cerebral palsy, to attend school with her service dog. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that when families bring federal actions under the Americans With Disabilities Act or the Rehabilitation Act, they need not jump through the administrative hoops of the more complex Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Michigan school district asserted that the student's human aide could do everything the service dog could do and more. Respondents also argued that the dog was a significant distraction to the other students.

A motion for summary judgment filed by the school, asserting that the parents were limited to the administrative procedures of the IDE, was granted; the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal.

Justice Elena Kagan authored the opinion, reversing the Sixth Circuit on technical procedural grounds and remanding the case to the trial court. On remand, the Supreme Court sought clarification as to whether the family availed themselves of any available administrative remedies. Not a complete win, but much better than the slap in the face the family received by the trial court.

At this point, however, the continued legal battle is a matter of principle for the family. The girl has moved-on through her elementary education, presumably without the aid of her service dog, while this case has made its way to the SCOTUS.

In the Colorado case, Chief Justice Roberts held that schools are required to offer special education programs that meet higher standards. The unanimous ruling held that minimal instruction for disabled students is insufficient; programs must be designed to allow students to progress academically, despite their learning disabilities.

The case arose when the parents of an autistic teenager sued, claiming their son's school did not provide a sufficient curriculum to foster academic progress. Under the federal IDE, a free and appropriate public education is required.

Chief Justice Roberts' opinion held that while deference is granted to school administrators to fashion specific special needs programs, those programs must be, "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances."

Fall-out from the unanimous opinion was rather immediate; showing-up the very day the opinion was announced. Judge Neal Gorsuch was questioned about the new higher standard during his Senate confirmation hearing; the higher standard replaces a lower standard that Judge Gorsuch adopted in an earlier similar case and that was favored by the Trump Administration's controversial Education Secretary Betsy Devos.

Moving forward, programs designed to foster mere de minimus progress from year to year will be subject to claims under the IDE. This is good for the underdogs who need to progress and thrive within the framework of our free appropriate public education.

Post #583

Clarkston Legal

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