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On March 22, 2017 the U.S. Supreme Court Issued Unanimous Decision Overturning a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Decision Limiting School Districts' Responsibilities Under the IDEA by Interpreting a FAPE to Mean Providing Merely "De Minimis" Benefit.

In a case called Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, parents of Endrew F. did not agree that a Colorado school district's Individualized Education Program (IEP) prepared for their son with autism, was reasonably calculated to provide him with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Under the IDEA, certain students who qualify for IEPs must be afforded special education and related services and their IEPs must be reasonably and uniquely calculated to provide them with educational benefit.

In the case of Endrew F., he had been placed within the general education classroom for many years during elementary school, with similar IEPs and advanced from grade to grade. However, the grade advancement was accompanied by significant maladaptive behaviors which the parents argued "inhibited his ability to access learning in the classroom." For example, "Endrew would scream in class, climb over furniture and other students, and occasionally run away from school. He was afflicted by severe fears of commonplace things like flies, spills, and public restrooms."

Instead of agreeing to the district's offer of FAPE, after years of very minimal progress in the district's program, and the district's refusal to change the program in any meaningful way, Endrew's parents enrolled him at Firefly Autism House, a private school that specializes in educating students with autism. Endrew did much better there. Firefly developed a behavioral intervention plan that identified his most problematic behaviors and employed specific strategies for addressing them.

Endrew's parents met with the district for an IEP meeting again after months of his attendance at Firefly. However, in the parents' opinion the district's IEP still failed to differ in any meaningful way from the previous IEPs which they concluded were inadequately calculated for Endrew to make appropriate progress.

In February 2012, the parents filed a due process complaint with the Colorado Department of Education for reimbursement of tuition at Firefly. An administrative law judge (ALJ) agreed with the district and denied the parents' request for relief. Endrew's parents appealed the ALJ's decision to the Federal District Court in Colorado. The District Court affirmed the ALJ's decision for the school district. The parents further appealed the decision to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2008, Justice Neil Gorsuch, (recently nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court), wrote an opinion which also sided with the school district and read the IDEA extremely narrowly.

The district relied on several passages from the paramount IDEA case called Rowley from 1982. In Rowley the U.S. Supreme Court did provide some guidance in interpreting the IDEA and deciphering what level of benefit districts are required to provide. First, the district in Endrew F. relied in part on the Rowley language where the Court pointed out that "any substantive standard prescribing the level of education to be accorded children with disabilities was noticeably absent from the language of the statute." Second, the district emphasized the that the IDEA requires districts to provide access to instruction "sufficient to confer some educational benefit." Thirdly, the district urged the argument that the IDEA was merely meant to open the door of pubic education to handicapped children, rather than to guarantee any particular level of education.

Parents rejected the 10th Circuit's reading of the IDEA, as did the U.S. Supreme Court in its unanimous March 22, 2017 decision, after granting the parents certiorari in 2016.

In its unanimous decision the high Court rejected the 10th Circuit's standard of "de minimis" and essentially rejected a standard that a child who qualifies for an IEP, is receiving a FAPE if they are conferred "some educational benefit" through their IEP.

-Elizabeth Curtis, March 23, 2017

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