Friday, October 10, 2008

Circuit clarifies standard in student disability cases

If a parent of a disabled student sues the school district under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, he has to prove that the district did not provide the student with a “free appropriate public education” in “the least restrictive environment.” This means that the district has to draft an education plan for the student which will allow him to enjoy special educational benefits with the fewest restrictions possible. The question before the Court of Appeals this week was: how do the courts resolve claims that the district did not provide the least restrictive educational environment for these students?

The case is P., by and through his parents v. Newington Board of Education, decided on October 9. The courts recognize that the law contains two contradictory goals: if possible, the student should be "mainstreamed" in class with non-disabled peers, but there will be occasions when the district has to make arrangements for the student to receive his education outside the school, at a special facility for example. A factor in resolving these disputes is the recognition that educational policy is a local function, and the courts do not like to second-guess those decisions.

The Second Circuit has never determined exactly how to resolve whether a district is affording a disabled student educational services in the least restrictive environment. In this case, the court borrows the standard from the Third Circuit, which has stated:

in determining whether a child with disabilities can be educated satisfactorily in a regular class with supplemental aids and services (the first prong of the two-part mainstreaming test we adopt today), the court should consider several factors, including: (1) whether the school district has made reasonable efforts to accommodate the child in a regular classroom; (2) the educational benefits available to the child in a regular class, with appropriate supplementary aids and services, as compared to the benefits provided in a special education class; and (3) the possible negative effects of the inclusion of the child on the education of the other students in the class.

If, after considering these factors, the court determines that the school district was justified in removing the child from the regular classroom and providing education in a segregated, special education class, the court must consider the second prong of the mainstreaming test – whether the school has included the child in school programs with nondisabled children to the maximum extent appropriate.

In the end, like many legal tests, this is a case-by-case analysis, with the balance tipping toward the school district's independent judgment since these cases involve educational policy. The legal standard must also take into account the IDEA’s purpose of educating children with disabilities, “to the maximum extent appropriate, together with their non-disabled peers.” This does not mean the school district will win each lawsuit, but it's an uphill battle for the parents, including the plaintiffs in this case, who lose the case.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I believe that by adopting this standard, the Court has made clear to school districts that they must make "reasonable efforts" to accommodate each classified student in a regular classroom -- which can mean nothing less than providing actual opportunity for inclusion before relegating a disabled child to a self-contained "special" class with the standard IEP notation that "the nature of the child's disability and current level of functioning indicates that a more restrictive setting is necessary...". If that be the outcome, then I celebrate the "P" decision as a victory for parents.