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What Could Supreme Court Decision Mean for Your Child?

The beginning of the new school year is a good time to consider how you can make sure your child receives a quality education designed to help them meet challenging goals. Disability advocates across the nation are hopeful that the Supreme Court’s decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District will bring changes that will lead to more positive outcomes for students with disabilities. The Endrew decision, in March 2017, introduced a new and more demanding standard for educating students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Endrew F., a student with autism, attended public school in Douglas County, CO, from preschool through fourth grade. His parents believed that his progress had stalled and that the strategies the school used to address his behaviors were insufficient to allow him to learn. His parents argued that he was offered essentially the same Individualized Education Program (IEP) each year and that the district needed to make significant changes to its approach. When the district proposed a similar IEP for fifth grade, his parents moved him to a private school for children with autism.

The private school immediately developed a behavior intervention plan that addressed their son’s specific strengths and needs. He flourished and made significant academic progress. The parents filed due-process claims for reimbursement for the private school tuition through the state Department of Education, federal district court, and the Tenth Circuit. The parents lost each claim in the lower courts and appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously in their favor.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision establishes a higher standard than previously held through the Tenth Circuit ruling, which stated that an IEP provides FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) if it is “calculated to confer an ‘educational benefit [that is] merely… more than de minimis.” De minimis is a Latin term that means “too trivial or minor to consider.” In rejecting the Tenth Circuit’s reasoning, the Supreme Court determined 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.”

So, how might efforts to advocate for your child be influenced in light of the following issues addressed in Endrew?

 

Low expectations are unacceptable

A standard that fails to focus on “student progress would do little to remedy the pervasive and tragic academic stagnation that prompted” Congress to enact IDEA. “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly … awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

What can you do? Make sure you REALLY understand your child’s IEP goals. Where is your child currently functioning? What are their annual goals? How will their progress measured? How often and in what way(s) will it be reported to you? If you don’t understand what “4 out of 5 trials” or “80% accuracy” means in relation to your child’s progress, keep asking for explanations until you do understand. The school should be able to provide a “cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions.”

 

High expectations for academic progress

Students with disabilities are entitled to an IEP that enables them to make academic progress. For most children, that means the opportunity to advance from grade to grade; however, do not assume every child advancing from grade to grade is receiving FAPE.

Questions you might ask your child’s IEP team:

  • Does my child’s IEP include challenging goals?
  • Does my child’s IEP include appropriate instruction, services, and supports that will provide the opportunity for “significant learning”?
  • Why is my child not making significant progress toward grade-level standards?
  • Has the IEP team considered my child’s previous rate of academic growth, whether my child is on track to achieve or exceed grade-level proficiency, and any behaviors interfering with my child’s progress?
  • Did the IEP team discuss all aspects of my child’s development that might be hindering learning, including social, emotional and behavioral needs?
  • Does my child’s IEP include, if appropriate, research-based services and interventions as well as supports, supplementary aids, and services known to be beneficial for many students with autism, such as the use of picture schedules and other visual supports?

 

Meaningful educational benefit for ALL students

For the small group of students who, due to significant cognitive disabilities, cannot meet academic standards, schools are required to provide special education that enables them to meet “challenging” and “appropriately ambitious” goals “in light of their circumstances.” For these students, progress may be measured against “alternate academic achievement standards” designed to promote further education, work, and independence.

Important considerations for the IEP team:

  • Has the IEP team given “careful consideration to my child’s present levels of achievement, disability, and potential for growth?”
  • Does the IEP team have sufficient information to determine my child’s “potential for growth?”
  • How is this IEP reasonably calculated to enable my child to make appropriate progress in light of his circumstances?
  • Has the IEP team adequately considered performance problems from the past year as well as your concerns when developing IEP goals and assessing the services, included related services, your child needs?
  • If your child has behaviors that interfere with his or her learning or the learning of other students, has the IEP team considered appropriate behavioral goals and interventions, such as Positive Behavior Supports and Interventions?
  • Did the IEP team discuss assistive technology, including communication devices that might increase your child’s access to the general curriculum and promote their social communication?

 

The Endrew F. ruling held that a school must offer an IEP – the centerpiece of each child’s entitlement to a Free Appropriate Public Education under the federal law, IDEA – that is reasonably calculated to confer more than just some or minimal progress and reinforced the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” If your child is not making expected progress toward his or her annual goals, the IEP team must revise, as appropriate, the IEP to address the lack of progress. As a parent, you can request an IEP meeting at any time. An Autism Resource Specialist is available in your area if you need help.

 

Vickie Dieter, an Autism Resource Specialist in the Catawba Valley region and mom to a son with autism, can be reached at vdieter@autismsociety-nc.org.

 

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