13 Apr Attorneys Look to U.S. Supreme Court Decision in Hamilton County Special-Education Case

April 13, 2017

By: Kendi A. Rainwater
Source: Times Free Press

Local attorneys argue a recent Supreme Court decision that bolsters the rights of students with learning disabilities should influence a federal judge’s decision about whether the Hamilton County Department of Education failed to follow federal guidelines when removing a student with Down syndrome from a general education classroom.

Federal Judge Curtis Collier ruled in November that Hamilton County Schools should not have removed Luka Hyde from his second- grade classroom at Normal Park Museum Magnet School in 2013. Collier agreed with Luka’s parents, Deborah and Greg Hyde, that the school district’s decision to move Luka to Red Bank Elementary’s comprehensive development classroom was not in his best interest.

In that classroom, Luka would have limited interactions with students without disabilities, and the curriculum would be more focused on developing life skills than academic aptitude. Collier determined that environment was “more restrictive than necessary” and Luka could benefit from being in a regular classroom.

Luka’s case has been winding through the court system for more than two years, and the Hydes are expected to address their claims of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act during a federal trial in coming months.

Before the trial, Collier asked attorneys for the school district and the Hydes to file supplemental briefs addressing the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in March that requires public schools to offer more than minimal instruction for special-needs students.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court sided with parents of an autistic teen in Colorado who said their public school did not do enough to help their son, known as Endrew F., make progress.

The case helps clarify the scope of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that requires a “free and appropriate public education” for disabled students. Lower courts previously ruled in the Endrew F. case that programs with minimal benefits can satisfy the law.

But Chief Justice John Roberts said the law requires an educational program be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” Roberts did not elaborate on what that progress should look like, saying it depends on the “unique circumstances” of each child. He added that there should also be deference to school officials.

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than de minimis progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts said. “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.”

The Hydes’ attorney, Justin Gilbert, said this portion of the Supreme Court’s ruling “eerily describes the [comprehensive development classroom] at Red Bank where Hamilton County demanded [Luka] be sent,” according to the supplemental brief filed Monday.

The Supreme Court’s decision mirrors Collier’s previous ruling that the comprehensive development classroom was not the best environment for Luka, as he was making progress at Normal Park, Gilbert argues in the brief.

Federal law states that students with disabilities must make reasonable progress toward individualized goals aligned in some way with grade-level standards, and they are not required to “keep pace with the curriculum,” Collier writes in the November ruling. The law also requires that handicapped students be educated alongside non-handicapped children to the maximum extent appropriate.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the Endrew F. case affirms that the Hydes “were correct in seeking an ambitious program for [Luka,] one with appropriate modifications and supports, without holding him to the exact grade level standard,” Gilbert continues.

Scott Bennett, the attorney representing Hamilton County Schools, also argues Endrew F.’s case is relevant in Luka’s case, but disagrees with Gilbert’s conclusion.

Hamilton County educators “did not hold [Luka] to an inappropriately high standard” and instead were “simply offering [Luka] the appropriately ambitious education program to which he was entitled,” Bennett writes in the brief he also filed Monday.

Educators, including Normal Park’s then-Principal Jill Levine, now the district’s chief academic officer, determined Luka could not receive a meaningful education in the classroom at Normal Park, and leaving him there “would have been tantamount to doing nothing,” Bennett writes.

The Supreme Court’s ruling thus affirms the district’s decision to remove Luka from Normal Park, as the comprehensive development classroom would be able to better address his individual needs, Bennett continues.

The Supreme Court’s decision leaves Collier with no choice but to reconsider his former ruling in the case, Bennett concludes.

Collier could respond to the two briefs in a ruling, or set a date for the case to go to trial.

The Hydes pulled Luka out of Hamilton County Schools in 2013 and enrolled him in The Montessori School, where court testimony states he is making progress.

 

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