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Legal Challenges Based on IDEA

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Although IDEA has resulted in dramatic increases in the number of students receiving special education services and in greater recognition of the legal rights of children with disabilities and their families, it has also brought about an ever-increasing number of disputes concerning the education of students with disabilities. Parents and other advocates have brought about thousands of due process hearings and hundreds of court cases. Due process hearings and court cases often place parents and schools in confrontation and are expensive and time-consuming (Getty & Summey, 2004; Lanigan, Audette, Dreier, & Kobersy, 2001).

It is difficult to generalize how judges and courts have resolved the various legal challenges based on IDEA. There have been many different interpretations of free, appropriate education and least restrictive environment. The federal statute uses these terms repeatedly; but in the view of many parents, educators, judges, and attorneys, the law does not define them with sufficient clarity. Thus, the questions of what is appropriate and least restrictive for a particular child and whether a public school district should be compelled to provide a certain service must often be decided by judges and courts on consideration of the evidence presented to them. Some of the key issues ruled on by the courts are the extended school year, related services, disciplinary procedures, and the fundamental right to an education for students with the most severe disabilities.

Extended School Year.  Most public school programs operate for approximately 180 days per year. Parents and educators have argued that, for some children with disabilities, particularly those with severe and multiple disabilities, a 180-day school year is not sufficient to meet their needs. In Armstrong v. Kline (1979), the parents of five students with severe disabilities claimed that their children tended to regress during the usual breaks in the school year and called on the schools to provide a period of instruction longer than 180 days. The court agreed and ordered the schools to extend the school year for these students. Several states and local districts now provide year-round educational programs for some students with disabilities, but there are no clear and universally accepted guidelines as to which students are entitled to free public education for a longer-than-usual school year.

Related Services.  The related-services provision of IDEA has been highly controversial, creating much disagreement about what kinds of related services are necessary and reasonable for the schools to provide and what services should be the responsibility of the child’s parents. The first case based on IDEA to reach the U.S. Supreme Court was Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley (1982). Amy Rowley was a fourth grader who, because of her hearing loss, needed special education and related services. The school district had originally provided Amy with a hearing aid, speech therapy, a tutor, and a sign-language interpreter to accompany her in the regular classroom. The school withdrew the sign-language services after the interpreter reported that Amy did not make use of her services: Amy reportedly looked at the teacher to read her lips and asked the teacher to repeat instructions rather than get the information from the interpreter. Amy’s parents contended that she was missing up to 50% of the ongoing instruction (her hearing loss was estimated to have left her with 50% residual hearing) and was therefore being denied an appropriate public school education. The school district’s position was that Amy, with the help of the other special services she was still receiving, was passing from grade to grade without an interpreter. School personnel thought, in fact, that an interpreter might hinder Amy’s interactions with her teacher and peers. It was also noted that this service would cost the school district as much as $25,000 per year. The Supreme Court ruled that Amy, who was making satisfactory progress in school without an interpreter, was receiving an adequate education and that the school district could not be compelled to hire a full-time interpreter.

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