by Christopher Schulz

On March 22, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) decided the case of Endrew F. filed against the Douglas County School District (DCSD). In a unanimous opinion, SCOTUS Chief Justice John Roberts ruled that public schools must provide students with disabilities an “educational program [that is] appropriately ambitious in light of [a particular student’s] circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.”

Since his enrollment in the DCSD, Endrew F., a child with autism, received an individualized education program (IEP). Endrew’s IEP was acceptable to his parents until his fourth grade year. At this time, Endrew’s parents observed that “his academic and functional progress had essentially stalled” and that “Endrew’s IEPs largely carried over the same basic goals and objectives from one year to the next, indicating that he was failing to make meaningful progress toward his aims.” Not surprisingly, “His parents believed that only a thorough overhaul of the school district’s approach to Endrew’s behavioral problems could reverse the trend.”

At the annual admission, review and dismissal (ARD) meeting, DCSD proposed a fifth grade IEP that resembled those from past years. Endrew’s parents responded by removing him from public school and enrolling him in a specialized private school, where he made significant progress. Subsequently, DCSD proposed a new IEP; however, “Endrew’s parents considered the IEP no more adequate than the one proposed [just six months ago], and rejected it. They were particularly concerned that the stated plan for addressing Endrew’s behavior did not differ meaningfully from the plan in his fourth grade IEP, despite the fact that his [private school] experience … suggested that he would benefit from a different approach.” Unsatisfied, Endrew’s parents sought reimbursement for his private school tuition by filing a complaint under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act with the Colorado Department of Education.

The hearing officer, a Federal District Court, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed with DCSD. However, the Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts’ rulings. The Supreme Court’s ruling that an IEP must be appropriately ambitious in light of the student’s circumstances is not a dramatic change for school districts within the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit as that analysis is already utilized under the Michael F. factors. Nonetheless, there are a couple of takeaways from the Endrew F. case that bear thoughtful consideration:

(a) ARD committees and school district administrators should consider if a student’s IEP is  appropriately ambitious in light of the student’s circumstances; and

(b) Although districts retain the court’s deference on matters of educational Page 2 policy, parents of special education students and their attorneys may likely test the waters on applying the SCOTUS decision in the Endrew F. case.

The Firm will be issuing more Specific Guidance in the coming weeks but if you have any pending ARD issues that may be impacted, please contact our office.