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Landmark Cases in Special Education

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)