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.

The second P.L. 94–142 case to reach the Supreme Court was Irving Independent School District v. Tatro (1984). In this case, the Court decided that a school district was obligated to provide catheterization and other related medical services to enable a young child with physical impairments to attend school. In the 1999 Cedar Rapids v. Garret F. case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed and extended its ruling in the Tatro case. 

Disciplining Students with Disabilities.  Some cases have resulted from parents’ protesting the suspension or expulsion of children with disabilities. The case of Stuart v. Nappi (1978), for example, concerned a high school student who spent much of her time wandering in the halls even though she was assigned to special classes. The school sought to have the student expelled on disciplinary grounds because her conduct was considered detrimental to order in the school. The court agreed with the student’s mother that expulsion would deny the student a free, appropriate public education as called for in IDEA. In other cases, expulsion or suspension of students with disabilities has been upheld if the school could show that the grounds for expulsion did not relate to the student’s disability. In 1988, however, the Supreme Court ruled in Honig v. Doe that a student with disabilities could not be expelled from school for disciplinary reasons, which meant that, for all practical purposes, schools could not recommend expulsion or suspend a student with disabilities for more than 10 days.

The IDEA amendments of 1997 (P.L. 105–17) contained provisions that enable school districts to discipline students with disabilities in the same manner as students without disabilities, with a few notable exceptions. If the school seeks a change of placement, suspension, or expulsion in excess of 10 days, the IEP team and other qualified personnel must review the relationship between the student’s misconduct and her disability. This review is called a manifestation determination (Katsiyannis & Maag, 2001). If it is determined that the student’s behavior is not related to the disability, the same disciplinary procedures used with other students may be imposed. However, the school must continue to provide educational services in the alternative placement.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 revised the discipline provisions of the law such that under special circumstances (e.g., student brings or possesses a weapon to or at school; possesses, uses, or sells illegal drugs at school; inflicts serious injury upon someone at school or a school function), school personnel have the authority to remove a student with disabilities to an interim alternative educational setting for up to 45 school days, whether or not the misconduct was related to the child’s disability.

Right to Education.  The case of Timothy W. v. Rochester School District (1989) threatened the zero-reject philosophy of IDEA. In July 1988, Judge Loughlin of the district court in New Hampshire ruled that a 13-year-old boy with severe disabilities and quadriplegia was ineligible for education services because he could not benefit from special education. The judge ruled in favor of the Rochester School Board, which claimed that IDEA was not intended to provide educational services to “all handicapped students.” In his decision, the judge determined that the federal law was not explicit regarding a “rare child” with severe disabilities and declared that special evaluations and examinations should be used to determine “qualifications for education under PL 94–142.”

In May 1989, a court of appeals overturned the lower court’s decision, ruling that public schools must educate all children with disabilities regardless of how little they might benefit or the nature or severity of their disabilities. The three-judge panel concluded that “schools cannot avoid the provisions of EHA [Education of the Handicapped Amendments] by returning to the practices that were widespread prior to the Act’s passage . . . unilaterally excluding certain handicapped children from a public education on the ground that they are uneducable.”

Challenges to existing services and differing views on whether a particular program is appropriate or least restrictive are certain to continue. Although the courts will probably grant some requests in the future and deny others, it is now a well-established principle that each student with disabilities is entitled to an individualized program of special instruction and related services that will enable him to benefit from an education in as least restrictive a setting as possible.