Landmark Cases in Special Education

The first federal laws designed to assist individuals with disabilities date back to the early days of the nation. In 1798, the Fifth Congress passed the first federal law concerned with the care of persons with disabilities (Braddock, 1987; cited in NICHCY, 1997). This law authorized a Maine Hospital Service to provide medical services to sick and disabled seamen. By 1912, this service became known as Public Health Service. However, prior to World War II, there were relatively few federal laws authorizing special benefits for persons with disabilities. Those that existed were intended to address the needs of war veterans with service-connected disabilities. This meant that, for most of our nation's history, schools were allowed to exclude-and often did exclude-certain children, especially those with disabilities.

In 1948, only 12% of all children with disabilities received some form of special education. By the early 1950s, special education services and programs were available in school districts, but often, undesirable results occurred. For example, students in special classes were considered unable to perform academic tasks.

Consequently, they went to special schools or classes that focused on learning manual skills such as weaving and bead stringing. Although programs existed, it was clear that discrimination was still as strong as ever for those with disabilities in schools.

Legislation and court cases to prevent discrimination in education first came to notice in 1954 with the famous case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In Brown, the Court ruled that it was illegal practice under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to arbitrarily discriminate against any group of people. The Court then applied this principle to the schooling of children, holding that a separate education for African American students is not an equal education. In its famous ruling, separate but equal would no longer be accepted (347 U.S. 483).

Brown set the precedent for future discrimination cases in education. People with disabilities were recognized as another group whose rights had been violated because of arbitrary discrimination. For children, the discrimination occurred because they were denied access to schools due to their disabilities. Using Brown as their legal precedent, students with disabilities claimed that their segregation and exclusion from school violated their opportunity for an equal education under the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution-the Equal Protection Clause. If Brown could not segregate by race, then schools should not be able to segregate or otherwise discriminate by ability and disability.

In the 1960s, parents began to become advocates for better educational opportunities for their children. Around the same time, many authorities began to agree that segregated special classes were not the most appropriate educational setting for many students with disabilities. By the end of the 1960s, landmark court cases set the stage for enactment of federal laws to protect the rights of children with disabilities and their parents. This section presents an overview of some of the most historical court cases in special education in their order of occurrence.

Hobson v. Hansen (1967). In Hobson v. Hansen, a U.S. district court declared that the District of Columbia school tracking system was invalid. However, special classes were allowed, provided that testing procedures were rigorous and that retesting was frequent (Sattler, 1992).

Diana v. State Board of Education (1970). In this case, California was mandated by the Court to correct bias in assessment procedures used with Chinese American and Mexican American students. Diana had three very important holdings that would later influence the enactment of federal special education laws:

1. If a student's primary language was not English, the student had to be tested in both English and his or her primary language.

2. Culturally unfair items had to be eliminated from all tests used in the assessment process.

3. If intelligence tests were to be used in the assessment process, they had to be developed to reflect Mexican American culture (Diana v. State Board of Education, C-70: 37RFT (N.D. Cal., 1970).

PARC v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1972). In this case, a U.S. federal court in Pennsylvania ratified a consent agreement assuring that schools may not exclude students who have been classified with mental retardation. Also, the Court mandated that all students must be provided with a free public education. Testimony in this case indicated that all mentally retarded persons are capable of benefiting from an educational program. Some are capable of self-sufficiency and some achieve self-care. It also shows that the earlier the program is started, the more the person will learn.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had taken it upon themselves to provide a free public education to all of its children between the ages of six and twenty-one, including exceptional children. This caused the
Commonwealth not to be able to dent any mentally retarded child access to a free public education.
It became their responsibility to make this education and training appropriate for the child.

Wyatt v. Stickney (1972). In Alabama, a federal court ruled that mentally retarded children in state institutions had a constitutional right to treatment (Wyatt v. Stickney, 344 F. Supp. 387, M.D. Ala 1972).

Larry P. V Riles (1972) : Larry P. Was a black student in California, and his complaint led to an
expansion of the ruling in the Diana case. The court ruled that schools are responsible for providing
tests that do not discriminate on the basis of race. In the class-action case of PASE v. Hannon (1980),
however, the fudge stated he could find little evidence of bias in the test items. The Larry P. Case also
set a precedent for the use of data indicating disproportionate placement of minority groups as prima
facie (sufficient to establish a fact or case unless disproved) evidence of discrimination. However,
subsequent cases have undermined this precedent (Marshall et a. v. Georgia [1984] and S-I v. Turlington

Guadalupe v. Tempe Elementary School (1972). In Arizona, a U.S. district court agreed to a stipulated agreement that children could not be placed in educable mentally retarded classes unless they scored lower than two standard deviations below the population mean on an approved IQ test administered in the child's own language. Guadalupe v. Tempe Elementary School also stipulated that other assessment procedures must be used in addition to intelligence tests, and that parental permission must be obtained for such placements (Sattler, 1992, p. 779).


Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia (1972). This case set forth future guidelines for federal legislation, including the rights of students with disabilities to have access to a free public education, due process protection, and a mandated requirement to receive special education services regardless of the school district's financial capability (Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia, 348 Supp. 866, CD. DC 1972; contempt proceedings, EHLR 551:643 CD. DC 1980). 


Lau v. Nichols 1974

This civil rights case was brought by limited-English proficient Chinese students living in San Francisco.
The students claimed that they were not receiving special help in school due to their inability to speak
English, help which they argued they were entitled to under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 becauseof its ban on educational discrimination on the basis of national origin. Finding that the lack of
linguistically-appropriate accommodations (e.g., educational services in Chinese) effectively denied the
Chinese students equal educational opportunities on the basis of their ethnicity, the Supreme Court in
1974 ruled in favor of the students, thus expanding the rights of limited English proficient students around
the nation. Among other things, Lau reflects the now-widely accepted view that one's language is so closely intertwined with one's national origin (the country someone or her ancestors came from) that language-based discrimination is effectively a proxy for national origin discrimination.

Lau remains an important decision in the areas of civil rights and language rights, and is frequently relied upon as authority in many cases. (The San Francisco Unified School District remains covered by the consent decree that was ultimately entered into in the Lau case, and civil rights groups continue to monitor SFUSD's compliance with that decree.)


PASE (Parents in Action on Special Education) v. Joseph P. Hannon (1980). In this case regarding bias in IQ testing, the judge (Judge Grady in Illinois) found that on the IQ tests he examined, only nine of the 488 test questions were racially biased. Consequently, IQ tests were found not to be discriminatory.

Furthermore, Judge Grady indicated that clinical judgment also plays a large role in interpreting IQ test results. He stated: "There is no evidence in this record that such misassessments as do occur are the result of racial bias in test items or in any aspect of the assessment process currently in use in the Chicago public school system."

Therefore, the decision in PASE resolved some of the controversy about the use of IQ tests for special education classification. As a result, the use of intelligence tests was acceptable in psychoeducational assessment as long as they followed all other procedural safeguards under federal law (PASE v. Joseph P. Hannon, No. 74 C 3586 N.D. Ill. 1980).


Luke S. and Hans S. v. Nix et al. (1982). In the state of Louisiana, all evaluations had to be completed within a 60-day time period. The plaintiffs in this case argued that thousands of students were not being appropriately evaluated within this time period. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and informed the state of Louisiana that greater prereferral assessment should be done before a referral is made (Luke S. and Hans S. v. Nix et al., cited in Taylor, 1997, p. 13).


Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson School District v. Rowley (1982). In Rowley, the parents of Amy Rowley, a deaf student with minimal residual hearing and excellent lip-reading skills, sought the services of a full-time interpreter in her regular classes. Amy had been provided with an FM trainer (a teacher of the deaf) for one hour per day, and speech for three hours per week. Even though Amy was missing about half of what was being discussed in class, she was very well adjusted, was performing better than the average child in the class and was advancing easily from grade to grade.


Based on these facts, the U.S. Supreme Court determined in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson School District v. Rowley that Amy was receiving an "appropriate" education without the sign interpreter. In reaching this opinion, the Court concluded that the obligation to provide an appropriate education does not mean a school must provide the "best" education or one designed to "maximize" a student's potential. However, the program must be based on the student's unique individual needs and be designed to enable the student to benefit from an education.

 In other words, the student must be making progress (Hager, 1999, p. 5).


Jose P. v. Ambach (1983). In this case, the plaintiffs filed suit against New York City. Their complaint involved the inappropriate delivery of services. The plaintiffs argued that many students in special education were not receiving services in an appropriate time frame. The court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and stated that from the time of referral to evaluation there can be a maximum of 30 days that can elapse. The court informed the defendants that all evaluations must be "timely evaluations" (Jose P. v. Ambach, cited in Taylor, 1997, p. 13).


Roncker v. Walter, 700 F2d. 1058 (6th Circuit Court 1983)
addressed the issue of "bringing educational services to the child" versus "bringing the child to the services". The case was resolved in favor of integrated versus segregated placement and established a principle of portability; that is, " if a desirable service currently provided in a segregated setting can feasiblely be delivered in an integrated setting, it would be inappropriate under PL 94-142 to provide the service in a segregated environment" Questions used to determine whether mainstreaming can be accomplished.

1) What is it in the segregated program that makes it better than a mainstreaming program?

2) Can these things (modified curriculum, teacher) be provided in the regular school environment?

"It is not enough for a district to simply claim that a segregated program is superior: In a case where the
segregated facility is considered superior, the court should determine whether the services which make
the placement superior could be feasibly provided in a non-segregated setting (i.e. regular class). If they
can, the placement in the segregated school would be inappropriate under the act (I.D.E.A.)
(Roncker v. Walter, 700 F.2d 1058 (6th Cir.) at 1063, cert. denied, 464 U.S. 864 (1983))
The Roncker Court found that placement decisions must be individually made. School districts that
automatically place children in a predetermined type of school solely on the basis of their disability
(e.g., mentally retardation) rather than on the basis of the IEP, violate federal laws.

Larry P. v. Riles (1984). In this California case, using IQ tests as the assessment measure for placing African American students in specil education as mentally retarded was found to be discriminatory. Schools in California were mandated by the Court to reduce the disproportionate representation of African American students in special education. In Larry P. v. Riles, the court determined that IQ tests were discriminatory against African Americans in three ways:

1. IQ tests actually measure achievement rather than ability. Because African Americans throughout their educational history have been denied equal educational opportunities through schools segregated by race, they will inevitably have achievement scores lower than the norms and thus be discriminated against in testing.

2. IQ tests rest on the plausible but unproven assumption that intelligence is distributed in the population in accordance with a normal statistical curve (bell shaped), and thus the tests are artificial tools to rank individuals.

3. IQ tests lead to the classification of more African American students than white students in dead-end classes for students with mild to moderate disabilities [(No. C-71-2270 RFP (1979) and No. 80-4027 DC No. CV 71-2270 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (1984)].


Georgia State Conference of Branches of NAACP v. State of Georgia (1984). A U.S. court of appeals ruled that black children schooled in the state of Georgia were not being discriminated against solely because there was a disproportionate number of them in classes for low achievers. The court explained that there was no evidence of differential treatment of black and white students. Overrepresentation of black children in classes for the mentally retarded by itself was not sufficient to prove discrimination (Sattler, 1992).


Honig v. Doe, et al. Honig, California Superintendent of Public Instruction 1988


Two students were to be expelled for being violent and disruptive. Both of the students had Iep's and recognized emotional disabilities. According to zero reject, should the boys have been separated from school?


Expulsion would violate zero reject and IDEA.


Students cannot be excluded from the classroom and programs because of violent or disruptive behavior that stems from their recognized emotional disabilities.

LEA's have a right to suspend for up to 10 days even if a parent requests due process.
If schools believe a student to be truly dangerous to self or others, they may file a preliminary injunction against the student and his inclusion in school. The student's present placement is favored, but may be denied if his behavior would likely result in injury to self or others.

A student may be disciplined as if he were disabled as long as his actions do not stem from his disability.

 In Polk v. Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16, 853 F.2d 171 (3rd Cir. 1988), the court held that a school district’s IEP did not provide the student FAPE. The court ruled that a student’s IEP must be “likely to produce progress, not regression or trivial educational advancement.” The Sixth Circuit has followed the language of Polk: “[I]n order to be ‘appropriate,’ the educational benefits provided by the states must be more than de minimis.”  Doe by and through Doe v. Smith, 879 F.2d 1340, 1341 (6th Cir. 1990), citing Polk, 853 F. 2d at 182.

Undeniably, this minimal educational requirement must be viewed on a case by case basis as the disability
of each student poses unique challenges. More important than advancing from grade to grade is whether the student made more than trivial progress toward his or her IEP goals. Some students, due to the extent of their disabilities, will never be able to perform at grade level and will require several years to achieve what would be a year’s worth of progress to a non-disabled student. Conklin v. Ann Arundel County Bd. Of Ed., 946 F.2d 306, 316 (4th Cir. 1991). “Progress” for a special education student has more to do with advancing toward IEP goals than performing at grade level.

How, then, should parents of a special education student determine whether their child is making “more than trivial progress” toward his or her IEP goals? The answer is through testing, data collection, and interpretation; the most accurate way to assess educational benefit or regression is through changes in test scores over time.

The starting point for the development of any IEP is a complete evaluation to determine the present levels of
educational performance in all areas –academics, behavior, and social skills – with a potential impact on the
student’s achievement. The appropriate assessment of these areas provides the baseline data from which all future progress can be measured. Parents and administrators should be careful, therefore, when incorporating the present levels into the IEP, that they identify specific skills and/or deficits of the student. Vague general and subjective statements should be avoided.


Schools and school districts have to try harder. They must provide children with special
needs not a minimum, but a MEANINGFUL BENEFIT from their educational program.


Daniel R. R. v. State Board of Education (1989). Daniel R. R. is one of the leading cases opening the door to increased inclusion of children with disabilities in regular education classes. The court noted that Congress created a strong preference in favoring mainstreaming; that is, educating the student in the regular education classroom with supports. Ironically, the court determined that it was not appropriate to include the child in this case in full-time regular education. However, the court's analysis of the least restrictive environment requirement, especially its interpretation of what is meant by providing supplementary aids and services in the regular classroom, has been followed by a number of other courts (Hager, 1999, p. 6).

In determining whether it is appropriate to place a student with disabilities in regular education, the student need not be expected to learn at the same rate as the other students in the class. In other words, part of the required supplementary aids and services must be the modification of the regular education curriculum for the student, when needed. The court in Daniel R. R. v. State Board of Education noted, however, that the school need not modify the program "beyond recognition." Also, in looking at whether it is "appropriate" for the child to be in regular education-in other words, whether the student can benefit educationally from regular class placement-the school must consider the broader educational benefit of contact with nondisabled students, such as opportunities for modeling appropriate behavior and socialization (Hager, 1999, p. 6).


Gerstmeyer v. Howard County Public Schools (1994). In the Gerstmeyer case, Howard School District had been told that a child needed an evaluation for the first grade four months before entering the first grade. The evaluation was not done prior to entering the first grade. The parents sent their child to private school and the evaluation was only done six months after the initial referral. The parents sued the district for the costs of private schooling and tutoring caused by the delay. In Gerstmeyer v. Howard County Public Schools, the Court ruled in favor of the parents and made Howard School District reimburse them for all associated costs (cited in Taylor, 1997, p. 13).

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