Updated: Oct 22, 2021
A deep dive into some of the most important court cases affecting students with disabilities in public schools. The historic moments included in this list are essential for any advocate for children with disabilities to be familiar with.
Before we had special education programs in the United States, parents of students with disabilities had to either pay for private tuition or educate their student at home. Even in the early 1970's, very few children with disabilities had access to a public education. Here, we'll discuss some of the most important court cases that have come about in our fight for the rights and inclusion of students with disabilities in public education.
Don't have time to read about all 30+ cases included in this review? Bookmark this page and come back when you need to: I'll be adding newer cases over time!
Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954)
The U.S. Supreme Court held that separate education for African-American students was not equal to that of white students in this landmark civil rights case. Five cases in which African American children challenged their school districts had been consolidated into one case, and the court found that the segregation by race in public schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, "in the field of public education the doctrine of 'separate but equal' has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal." This case provided precedent for future cases in special education, as this doctrine had been the status quo for over a century.
Hobson v. Hansen, 269 F. Supp. 401 (1967)
In a case filed by civil rights activist Julius W. Hobson, the federal court ruled that the education system denied students of color and low-income individuals the 'right to equal educational opportunity.' Notably, the court decreed that the track system that had been put in place be abolished, as the IQ tests used to track all students was culturally biased. This system had been used to determine which students would be taught skills necessary for white-collar or blue-collar work. Hobson continued his work, forming a watchdog group called the Washington Institute for Quality Education, with the aim of holding the board accountable for the decision. The lasting legacy of this ruling was the abolition of both de jure and de facto segregation in public education.
Diana v. State Board of Education, CA 70 RFT (1970)
A culturally biased, English language test was used to test for intellectual disability, meaning that many schools unnecessarily placed students in special education programs. Nine students, whose primary language was Spanish, challenged the use of the Stanford Binet Intelligence Test, among others. The court found that all future students should be assessed in their primary language, as the children were unable to comprehend the questions on the tests for no other reason than primary language. This settlement led to California substantiating test scores with each child's development, culture, and academic history. This case paved the way for Guadalupe Organization, Inc. v. Tempe Elementary, in which it was mandated that IQ tests be administered in student's primary language, while also requiring adaptive behavior assessments and in-home parent interviews.
P.A.R.C. v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 334 F. Supp. 279 (1972)
In Pennsylvania, a state law allowed the exclusion of children who had not reached a 'mental age of 5 years'. The District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania determined that the state should not deny any student up to age 21 the right to enroll in a public school program. This ruling laid the foundation for a Free and Appropriate Public Education, stating in the agreement that: 'it is the Commonwealth's obligation to place each mentally retarded child in a free, public program of education and training appropriate to the child's capacity'.
Mills v. Board of Education, 348 F. Supp. 866 (1972)
The Court found that no child could be denied a public education because of 'mental, behavioral, physical, or emotional handicaps or deficiencies,' and that the school system for the District of Columbia should ensure that 'available funds... be expended equitably in such a manner so that no child is entirely excluded from a publicly supported education.'
Stuart v .Nappi, 443 F. Supp. 1235 (1978)
This case formed the basis from which special education laws are held to protect the right of intellectually disabled children to due process before exclusion or expulsion from school. The plaintiff, a child, was suspended from school following a riot. The court found that the EHA limited the ability of school systems to remove disabled students in emergency situations only, and that the law required the student to be moved to a more controlled environment.
Armstrong v. Kline, 476 F. Supp. 583 (1979)
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania had developed a 180 day rule in regards to special education services, in which they would not approve or provide services beyond 180 days per school year. Parents of students afforded special education services wished to have those services made available year round to maintain student progress, as they noticed regression over the summer break. The court determined that the practice of withholding special education programs and services in excess of 180 days per year violated the students' right to a free and appropriate public education. The Appellate Court upheld this opinion on July 15, 1980. This decision was made at the district level, but the case laid the framework for the creation of Extended School Year (ESY) programs throughout the country.
Larry P v. Riles, 495 F. Supp. 926 (1979)
This case was filed in 1971 on behalf of students who had been placed in special education classes based on biased and discriminatory IQ tests. The plaintiffs argued that the discriminatory nature of the tests was evident in the overrepresentation of African American students in special education classes. The court ruled in favor of the students, and the ruling was upheld in 1984. This decision banned the use of IQ tests on African-American students who were referred for special education without prior court approval, and determined that African American children could not be placed in special education classes purely on the basis of IQ test results.
Parents in Action on Special Education v. Joseph P. Hannon, 506 F. Supp. 831 (1980)
Judge Grady, of Illinois, examined 488 IQ test questions, and found 9 of them to be discriminatory in nature. The case was brought against the superintendent of Chicago on behalf of African American children in special education classes. The tests included the WISC-R, WISC, and the Stanford-Binet. On the basis of the perceived value of the tests, they were not found to be wholly discriminatory. This decision made the use of intelligence tests for students with disabilities an acceptable practice, so long as it was not the sole basis for admittance to a special education program.
Luke S. & Han S. v. Nix et al., U.S.D.C. Civ. No. 81-3331 (1982)
In Louisiana, the plaintiffs argued that students were not being appropriately evaluated for special education services within the 60-day evaluation period. In fact, it was later suggested that approximately ten thousand students were waiting on evaluations that were long overdue. The ruling found that assessment should be done on a pre-referral basis.
Board of Education Hendrick Hudson School District v. Amy Rowley 458 U.S. 176 (1982)
The parents of Ann Rowley, a deaf student, filed a complaint against the Henrick Hudson School district in New York. They believed that the EHC entitled their child to a sign-language interpreter in her classroom, as the methods detailed in her IEP only allowed her to understand approximately 60% of the content presented. Essentially, they believed that Ann was not given the tools to help her reach her full potential. The Supreme Court, in a particularly damaging blow, decided that schools need only provide services that provide at least some benefit to disabled students, and did not require that schools provide services that would allow the student to reach her full potential. However, the decision upheld that students with disabilities have the right to an individualized education plan (IEP) and additional services.
Abrahamson v. Hershman, 701 F.2d 223 (1983)
Daniel Abrahamson was a student with severe disability for whom the IEP was determined to only apply during the school day. His parents sought residential placement, and the court found that this placement would fulfill his right to a free appropriate public education. Daniel was entitled to the type of instruction and reinforcement that the residential program provided, as he had not made progress in a day services program that he had been previously enrolled in. The ruling determined that the financial responsibility for this placement should fall to the school district.
Dept. of Ed., State of Hawaii v. Katherine D., 531 F. Supp. 517 (1982)
Katherine's parents wished to enroll their daughter in a public school, but were only able to do so if a person trained in her medical needs were available at short notice. The court found that the child should be placed in the least restrictive environment and provided with related health services.
Irving Independent School District v. Tatro, 486 U.S. 883 (1984)
A child named Amber had spina bifida, and required catheterization multiple times a day. She was unable to change her catheter on her own, but it did not require special medical training for someone to perform the change for her. An IEP required the school district to provide for her education and "related services," but they were not required to provide medical services beyond evaluation. As such, the school district declined to provide catheterization for the child. The court of appeals reversed the initial decision, ruling that this was not a medical service because a medical professional was not required to perform the procedure. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote that this procedure was necessary for the child to benefit from special education services, and that medical services had been defined by the Department of Education as those services that require a licensed physician. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the decision was upheld.
Smith v. Robinson, 468 U.S. 992 (1984)
This case focused on the question of whether courts should grant attorney's fees to plaintiffs in cased argued under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA). Tommy Smith, an 8-year-old student in Rhode Island, was removed from a Special Education program and moved to an understaffed and underfunded facility. His parents appealed, and the Supreme Court found that the EHA should be the only administrative process used in equal access to education cases. Previously, plaintiffs filed under section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and 42 U.S.C. 1983. Congress then passed an amendment to the EHA that allowed plaintiffs to collect attorney's fees in cases ruled in their favor. This amendment overruled the Supreme Court's decision on Smith v. Robinson, and allowed plaintiffs to bring lawsuits under the EHA, § 504, or § 1983.
School Committee of Town of Burlington, Mass. v. Massachusetts Department of Education, 471 U.S. 359 (1985)
At question here was whether school districts should reimburse parents for private school expenses if the public school's educational program is unable to provide an appropriate education. Additionally, the court considered the facilitation of the process for finding the child a free and appropriate education, and determined that it should be swift. The plaintiffs in this case rejected the school's IEP for their child, Michael, opting to enroll him in a private school at their own expense. The child was enrolled in this program for over 8 years before the court reached their verdict. The parents made the decision to move him after the child did not demonstrate improvement at the public school for several years, and after testing at a local hospital led to the recommendation for an educational setting that could be provided by the private school. When the parents enrolled Michael in the private school, they did not follow EHA guidelines, which stipulated that he should remain in his current educational setting in the interim. The Supreme Court looked at the issues of state funded private education for those students who were not able to receive an appropriate education, and whether reimbursement to parents for that private schooling was warranted if they reject the IEP and place their child in a private school without prior consent from the school authorities. The ruling was decided in favor of the plaintiffs..
Timothy W. v. Rochester, N.H., School District, 875 F.2d 954 (1989)
Timothy W. was a child with severe disability, and local school district personnel deemed him "uneducable" after testing the child in 1980. The district then denied the child educational services, because they believed he was not capable of benefiting from an education. The plaintiffs argued that the child qualified as a "handicapped" child under the EHA, and that the severity of disability should not be used to determine eligibility. The Supreme Court held that Timothy qualified under the EHA, and that his right to an education had been violated. The court decided that children seeking special education services do not need to demonstrate that they would benefit from those services to be eligible under EHA. This case established the principle of zero rejection.
Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305 (1988)
In this decision, the district court found that students with disabilities could not be suspended for more than 5 days if the misconduct was due to the student's disability. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where a "dangerous exception" rule was rejected, and the time limit for suspension was affirmed to be 10 days. Within that time period, the district is required to review the student's IEP and ask parents to agree to an alternative placement or seek court assistance. Additionally, it was found that if the school district fails to provide services to the student, that responsibility falls to the state.
Daniel R. R. v. State Board of Education, 874 F.2d 1036 (1989)
The court decided that students with disabilities should be included in academic and extracurricular programs, a continuum of services that include both regular and special education as part of the child's placement in the least restrictive environment. Six-year-old Daniel was placed both in general and special education classes for a time, but the school determined that he was not benefiting from the general education placement and moved him to a special education placement for the full day. Daniel was given opportunities to interact with his general education peers during breaks in the day, including lunch and recess. The court upheld that Daniel's least restrictive environment was not the general education classroom, as he had diverse and individual needs that could not be provided for in that placement.
Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills School District, 509 U.S. 1 (1993)
Here, a child named James attended public school until 8th grade, with a sign-language interpreter provided as a part of his IEP. When his parents sought to move him to a Roman Catholic High School, the district declined to provide an interpreter. The court held that the school district was not required to furnish an interpreter to the student based on the Establishment clause; his religious education could not be provided at the expense of the government.
Florence County School District Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1993)
Shannon Carter was a student with dyslexia and ADHD, and she entered high school at a 5th grade reading level. The school district created an IEP that her parents felt would not be adequate to meet her needs, and asked for a program that would allow her to reach a high school reading level by the time she graduated. When the district refused, her parents placed her in a private program and sued the district for reimbursement. This program was not on the state's list of approved programs. The Supreme Court ruled that if a child received an appropriate education in a private setting that the district is unable to provide, the parents are eligible for reimbursement even if that program is not on the list of approved schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law, passed in 1990, essentially revamped the EHA.
Oberti v. Board of Education, 801 F. Supp. 1392 (1993)
The Oberti family felt that their son, Rafael, deserved an educational placement that provided him with the opportunity to eventually reach the general education classroom. However, the district believed that Rafael required a self-contained special education environment. In filing the complaint, the Oberti's also noted that per his IEP, Rafael was guaranteed a teacher's aide, though he did not receive this service until a few months before the end of the school year. While the case made its way through the judicial process, Mrs. Oberti homeschooled her son and made progress with him that the district had concluded wasn't possible. The lasting effect of this case was that if a child must be placed outside the general education classroom, the district must include that child in as many services with their general education peers as possible.
Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Education v. Rachel H, 14 F.3d 1398 (1994)
The school district argued in this case that Rachel, a child with moderate intellectual disability, would not benefit from a placement in a general education classroom due to the severity of her disability. They offered general education placements for nonacademic activities, while Rachel's parents maintained that her least restrictive environment was in the general education classroom. The court opined that the school needed to meet the burden of proof that the general education classroom would not benefit the child. The court created a four factor formula for determining appropriate placements, including the academic benefits of a general education placement, the nonacademic benefits of a general education placement, the effect of the student on their peers, and the cost of mainstreaming the child's education.
Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F., 526 U.S. 66 (1999)
Garret was a student who used a wheelchair and ventilator, and required assistance with his physical needs during the school day. The court found that under IDEA, the district was required to provide and fund "school health services," which differ from "related services" and "medical services" in that they are provided by a qualified school nurse, not a layperson or physician.
Buckhannon Board and Care Home, Inc. v. West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, 532 U.S. 598 (2001)
After failing a fire marshal's inspection and ordered to close its doors because residents were not all capable of "self-preservation," the Buckhannon Board and Care home sought to prove that this requirement violated both the Fair Housing Amendments Act (FHAA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). As a result of this case, the state legislature removed the requirement.
Shapiro v. Paradise Valley Unified School District, 317 F.3d 1072 (1994)
Dorie Shapiro was a deaf student who was issued an IEP for her new public school placement without her parents or a representative from the private school she had been attending. Her parents contested that this IEP was not valid, as they had not been included in the process. They brought an action against the district and paid for a private school for their child in the interim. When the IEP was determined to provide an appropriate education, Dorie's parents sought reimbursement for the private school expenses. The case made its way to the 9th Circuit Court, where it was decided that Dorie's parents were entitled to reimbursement and that the IEP was not a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) because it resulted in lost educational opportunity. As a result of this case, it was determined that private school teachers should be involved in the creation of an IEP because of that teacher's knowledge of the child's educational needs.
Zachary Deal v. Hamilton Board of Education, 259 F. Supp. 2d 687 (2003)
Judge Andrews found that the Hamilton County Department of Education continuously failed to provide a FAPE to Zachary Deal, a student with Autism. Zachary made tremendous progress in an ABA therapy program that his parents provided. They then asked the school district to provide funding for the program, as Zachary was not making progress in the school's program. In the finding, the court determined that IDEA had been violated in this case on several counts, including that the child's placement was predetermined, did not include a general education teacher in IEP decisions, and denied Zachary access to appropriate educational services. This case was the first to determine that, while a school district is still not required to provide the maximum benefit, it would be considered a denial of FAPE if the child was denied an alternative program with methods that result in much higher levels of progress.
Arlington Central School District Board of Education v. Murphy, 548 U.S. 291 (2006)
After the Arlington Central School District was ordered to reimburse Joseph Murphy's parents for his private school tuition, the parents sought to recover the cost of the fees paid to an educational consultant who provided expert testimony during the proceedings. The district court found that IDEA permitted the reimbursement of these fees, but the Supreme Court reversed this decision. On the basis that there was no specific provision in IDEA for the reimbursement of expert fees, they found that the parents must pay for witness testimony.
Winkelman v. Parma City School District, 550 U.S. 516 (2007)
When the Winkleman's intended to argue their case against the Parma City School District to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, the case was dismissed on the grounds that IDEA did not establish the right for non-lawyer parents to appear 'pro se' before the court, despite the parents belief that any party aggrieved by the findings should be allowed to appeal. The Sixth Circuit also maintained that non-lawyers could not represent themselves in these cases, as IDEA does not protect the rights of the parents, only the child.
Forest Grove School District v. T.A., 557 U.S. 230 (2009)
T.A. was a former student of the Forest Grove School District who withdrew from school before being evaluated for a disability or receiving disability services for reasons unrelated to his disability. T.A. was evaluated in 2003, and sought reimbursement for his private school education. The Supreme Court found that this reimbursement was owed to the student to provide equitable relief and FAPE when the private school is the appropriate placement, regardless of the student's previous access to special education services.
Doug C. v. Hawaii Department of Education, 720 F.3d 1038 (2013)
This case provided a provision to the legal language surrounding a parent's right to attend their child's IEP meetings. Doug C. fell ill before his son's annual IEP meeting, and attempted to reschedule to a date that would fall after the deadline for review. When he rejected all of the alternative dates that the school district suggested, he was offered the opportunity to join via phone or internet. He refused, and the meeting was held without him. In the meeting, his son's placement was changed from a private school to a placement at a public high school. The court found that the district would be required to include parents in IEP meetings unless they affirmatively refused to attend, and that the parent's schedule takes precedence over district employees'. Therefore, the IEP meeting violated IDEA requirements and was considered invalid.
F. H. v. Memphis City Schools, No. 13-6323 (6th Cir. 2014) (TW: discussions of abuse)
F.H. was a student with cerebal palsy, asthma, sleep apnea, and learning disorders. In the suit, it was alleged that he was left unattended while upset in the bathroom, subjected to verbal and physical abuse, was not provided with clean underwear, and subjected to sexual abuse by an aide on more than one occasion. This case serves to define the difference between liability under IDEA and 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. A settlement agreement was reached under IDEA, then Ms. Hall filed a separate suit under the Rehabilitation Act and the ADA regarding the policies and training of aides at the school district, as the school had not honored the settlement agreement. The court of appeals held that the settlement agreement was enforceable in court and that not all injuries in schools are educational injuries and therefore the previous injuries were not released by the settlement agreement.
Fry v. Napoleon Community School District
As E.F. was provided with a human aide under her IEP, her school did not allow her to bring her service dog to school. Her parents sued under the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act. This was dismissed on the grounds that the claims implicated IDEA, but the Fry's appealed on the grounds that they were seeking damages. The Sixth Circuit court affirmed the dismissal on the grounds that the claims were educational in nature, therefore requiring the plaintiffs to exhaust all administrative remedies before suing.
Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, 580 U.S. (2017)
In this groundbreaking case, Chief Justice John Roberts opined that schools are required to provide an education that is "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." Endrew F. was a 5th grade public school student in Colorado who exhibited severe behavioral issues. He was then enrolled in a private school specialising in autism. The parents requested reimbursement on the grounds that the school district had not provided an appropriate education to their child, and argued that the courts had set the bar for appropriate education too low. They wanted a higher level of educational benefit for their child, not the minimum required by law. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, effectively improving the quality of education standards that were in place for decades.