As many in education are aware, on March 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court published an opinion in a significant special education case: Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE–1, 580 U.S. ___ (2017). This decision clarified the standard for a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for students with disabilities:
To meet its substantive obligation under IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.
This decision confirmed that the standard of “merely more than the minimum” was too low. Essentially, the Court established two standards:
|Supreme Court Decision||Student Circumstances||FAPE Standard|
|Rowley||Student who is fully integrated in the regular classroom and able to achieve on grade level||IEP must be reasonably calculated to enable the student to receive passing marks and advance from grade to grade|
|Endrew F.||Student who is not fully integrated and not able to achieve on grade level||IEP must be appropriately ambitious / reasonably calculated to enable the student to make progress appropriate in light of the student’s circumstances|
However, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision on March 22, the case was not finished. The case was remanded back down to the lower courts to apply the new standard and determine whether Endrew’s parents were entitled to tuition reimbursement for the unilateral placement of their son in a private school.
On February 12, 2018, in relying on the new standard from the Supreme Court, Judge Babcock of the United States District Court for the District of Colorado held that Endrew’s parents were entitled to tuition reimbursement for the unilateral placement of their son in a private school. The judge decided that the IEP did not satisfy the Court’s revised FAPE standard. Minor changes in Endrew’s IEP were noted throughout the years – including updating and making minor or slight increases in the objectives, carrying over the same goals from year to year, or abandoning goals if they could not be met – but these minor changes were unacceptable as they provided the basic floor of opportunity, not progress appropriate in light of Endrew’s circumstances. (Note: Prior to the Supreme Court’s Endrew F. decision, these same IEP changes were found to meet the FAPE standard in Colorado by the same judge.)
Additionally, the judge determined that the school district could not hide behind the fact that the student’s severe behavioral problems prevented him from making appropriate progress because the school district failed to conduct a functional behavior assessment; to implement appropriate positive behavioral interventions, supports, or strategies; or to develop an appropriate behavior intervention plan. This failure on the school district’s part to appropriately address Endrew’s behaviors “cuts against the reasonableness of [his] IEP.” The court held that Endrew could have made greater progress had the school district implemented appropriate behavioral supports.
Although following Endrew F. back through the court system allows us to see how courts around the country will apply this new legal standard, the legal standard applied by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (controlling in Ohio) of “meaningful benefit” has not changed and is similar to “progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” Ohio school districts should likely not see a significant change in their IEPs and services.
Ohio school districts should, however, take away additional learning opportunities from this recent Endrew F. decision:
- Review IEPs to ensure that each is reasonably calculated to enable the student to make appropriate progress in light of the student’s circumstances.
- IEPs should change from year to year as the student changes, learns and grows.
- IEPs should be specifically tailored to the student’s needs and geared for progress.
- Goals should be measurable annually, reflecting appropriate achievements for the student given his/her unique situation.
- IEP teams should be reminded that that behavior management can play an incredibly important role in providing FAPE to students.
- When a student’s behaviors are so severe that they impede progress toward IEP goals, the behaviors should be addressed through timely functional behavior assessments, behavior intervention plans, and, when appropriate, behavior goals.
Endrew F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, No. 12-cv-2620, 2018 WL 828019 (D. Colo. Feb. 12, 2018).