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A federal judge has ordered the Douglas County School District to reimburse the family of a student with autism for costs associated with his private education.
On Feb. 12, U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock ruled the school district failed to provide an appropriate education for the student, identified only as Endrew F. in court documents. First filed in 2010, the case of Endrew F. versus Douglas County School District made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Though frustrated with the amount of time it took to make a ruling on the case, Endrew F.'s parents, identified only as Joseph F. and Jennifer F. in court documents, are “obviously very pleased,” they said in an emailed statement provided by the family's lawyer, Jack D. Robinson, of the Denver-based firm Spies, Powers & Robinson.
“We're hopeful the ruling will finally change how DCSD approaches educating not only the special need student population, but their entire student body including gifted and talented, twice gifted and neuro-typical students,” the parents said in the statement.
Endrew F. was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2 and with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder a year after that, court documents say. His autism affects his cognitive functioning, language and reading skills, and his social and adaptive abilities.
He attended Douglas County schools from preschool through fourth grade. During that time, he received special-education services, including Individualized Education Plans, also known as IEPs.
In 2010, Endrew F.'s parents pulled him out of Summit View Elementary in Highlands Ranch and enrolled him at Firefly Autism House, a private school in Denver that costs roughly $70,000 a year.
His parents argued he wasn't provided the level of public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which guarantees a "free appropriate public education” to all students with disabilities.” They sought reimbursement from the Douglas County School District for their child's tuition and related expenses at Firefly.
In August 2015, the United States 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the school district did provide a "a free appropriate public education."
Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously sided with the family. In the decision, Chief Justice John Roberts said it is not enough for school districts to offer minimal instruction for special-needs children. The school programs must be "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances."
The ruling would have ramifications for special needs students across the country.
The Supreme Court's decision “constituted a paradigm shift in the educational rights of children with disabilities,” Robinson said over email.
The Endrew F. case had been tied up in district court until the Feb. 12 ruling, when Babcock concluded that the school district didn't meet the “undeniably higher standard set by the Supreme Court.”
“While Petitioner's educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, the Supreme Court was clear that every child, including Petitioner, should have the chance to meet challenging objectives,” Babcock wrote. “In this case, Petitioner's past educational and functional progress — as evidenced by the changes to his yearly IEPs after second grade — was minimal at best.”
The family and their lawyer have until March 5 to submit damages to district court, which will be “in the seven figures,” Robinson said over email. Costs include private school education, transportation to and from school, pre-judgment interest, attorney's fees and litigation costs, he said.
The school district is in the processing of assessing the ruling and next steps, spokeswoman Paula Hans said.
“Regardless of today's outcome, DCSD will continue to support the learning and well-being of every student, thanks to our dedicated professionals who work with our 68,000 students on a daily basis,” Hans said.
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