Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District is a recent case that was heard by the the Supreme Court of the United States that shined light on a lack of quality education being provided to a child with a disability in public school.
Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District made its way to SCOTUS after a lower-court decision ruled in favor of the school district. The backstory is as follows: a child who was diagnosed with Autism and Attention-Deficit Disorder was attending a public school where his parents felt that his educational needs were not being met, and his individual education program (IEP) was not being tailored to his needs and to educational advancement. In other words, his IEP for the next grade-level resembled that of his previous years of school. So, his parents decided to remove him from the school and enroll him in a private school. After doing so, the child made major improvements both academically and socially.
During this time, the child’s parents felt that their child should have been provided an adequate public school education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), so they filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education in order to recover the costs that came with sending their child to a private school.
Disagreement between the child’s parents and the school district ensued. The school district understood that the intent of IDEA was that children with disabilities would only have access to a public school education and that the intent of IDEA was not to guarantee children with disabilities to any specific degree or quality of the education provided. Wait, so basically the school district saw to it that “these children” were only guaranteed to be students in a public school and not guaranteed a quality education?
Shouldn’t a quality education be provided to ALL children—regardless of whether or not the child has a disability? Now, I understand that “quality” can be defined in many ways, but I am sure that there is some consensus among us that children with disabilities deserve to be provided an education that affords them the ability to grow and make progress both academically and socially.
Well, the court felt the same way, and there was a unanimous 8-0 vote in favor of children with disabilities being able to make ambitious progress in a public school setting, holding school districts accountable.
This decision was a breakthrough for the disability rights community and for youth with disabilities attending public schools. Particularly, this decision has helped to pave the way for child advocates and case workers who work with adolescents who have IEPs. This decision has made it clear that there needs to be accountability in public schools when it comes to students with disabilities being afforded the right to make progress and receive a quality education.
As a former child advocate intern, many of the children that I had advocated on behalf of had IEPs, and I remember those feelings of frustration when I would look at the goals for each child’s independent educational program; many of their goals were repetitive. And if the child did not meet these goals, instead of a new plan of action being set in place, which would have meant looking into goal changes, the solution was to continue with the same goals, to where a child’s IEP would look the same each year. This system of treating these children as incapable of succeeding academically is not only wrong, but it sends a message to these children that they are not worth the school’s time and resources.
Lowering the bar for youth with disabilities is both demeaning and draws from stereotypes and misconstrued images of what a child with a disability can accomplish. Each child deserves to be able to make progress in their education, and when given an IEP, these children should not be looked at as less than because of their need for a specialized program.
Currently, we are seeing numbers for children diagnosed with Autism rising. And to date, there are 6.6 million students in the United States who are receiving special education services. These children all deserve to receive an education that is tailored to their needs, and they deserve to receive an education that is sufficient.
This decision, although not completely without error nor perfect, allows both parents and child advocates, including social workers, to begin holding public schools accountable for children’s access to an education that meets the child’s individual needs as well as an education that will allow each child to progress year-after-year, both academically and socially. Armed with the knowledge of this SCOTUS decision, social workers can further advocate for their clients’ academic and social needs.
As social workers, we seek to advocate on behalf of vulnerable populations, and many of us either are currently working with or have in the past worked with children and adolescents. This SCOTUS decision, however minor, is a move in the direction toward progress for youth with disabilities.