Schools prevail more than parents in court cases involving services to autistic children

iStock_000026636782XSmallSchools prevail more often than parents in recent court cases involving students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), says a recent study in Preventing School Failure.

“The move from parents prevailing in the 1990s, to virtually even split decisions (2002-2004), and last, to a climate more favorable to school districts in cases litigated in 2007-2009, indicates that schools are more knowledgeable of autism and of their responsibilities under IDEA…” the researchers write.

Schools are more aware of their responsibilities to conduct timely evaluations, involve parents, place students in the least restrictive environment, employ highly qualified teachers, and develop legally correct IEPs, the study says.

The two researchers examined 62 court cases from 2009 that involved students with ASD ranging in age from 3 to 21. Families in each court case sued school districts over procedural and /or substantive violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The court cases were included in the LexisNexis database that holds nearly all published case opinions from the 1970s to present.

Schools prevailed in 39 cases (63%) and parents prevailed in 18 (29%); the rest were split-decision cases. Parents tended to prevail in cases involving substantive violations and schools prevailed more often in procedural violations. Parents prevailed most when the case involved extended school year services, although the number of cases was small. Parents also prevailed in cases involving transition, both transition from preschool and postschool environments, the researchers write.

Based on these 62 cases, the most common substantive violations were:

  • a failure to provide services (37%)
  • student behavior issues (32.3%)
  • extended school year services (24.2%)
  • applied behavior analysis (22.6%)
  • functional behavior assessment and behavior intervention plan (14.5%),
  • transition (12.9%)
  • services that result in no progress (8%)

The most common procedural violations in the 62 cases were:

  • IEP issues (72.6%)
  • placement in the least restrictive environment (56.5%)
  • parental participation (22.6%)
  • evaluation (22.6%)
  • unqualified personnel (16.1%)

The ratio of boys (85.3%) to girls (14.7%) was greater than 5-1, much higher than the 3- or 4-1  ratio cited by the National Autism Center, the researchers write. With regard to diagnoses, 54.8% were identified with a single diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder and 45.2% were identified with multiple diagnoses. As for grade level, 43 cases involved students from pre-Kindergarten through Grade 6, whereas 17 cases involved students in Grades 7-12. The preferred methodology in most cases was applied behavior analysis (ABA).

When determining what constitutes a Free and Appropriate Public Education, (FAPE), the legal precedent most commonly used by the courts was the case of Hendrick Hudson School district V. Rowley (1982). This Supreme Court case involved a deaf child who was provided a sign language interpreter in kindergarten, a service the school district planned to discontinue upon the recommendation of the sign language interpreter who determined that Amy was an excellent lip reader. The Supreme Court overruled the lower courts, which sided with the parents in their objection that the child was not learning as much as she could have with the aid of an interpreter.

“The high court determined that a FAPE consisted of educational services that allow the student to benefit from specialized instruction, give them a basic floor of opportunity to public education, but FAPE did not consist of services to meet a student’s full potential and the school district prevailed,” the researchers write.

All stakeholders should focus on planning, training, and collaboration to provide students with early, intense, research-based interventions and to avoid legal challenges, the authors conclude.

“Autism Spectrum Disorder, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and Case Law: Who Really Wins?” by Doris Adams Hill and Stephanie J. Hill, Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, Volume 56, Number 3, 2012, pps. 157-164.

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