Important Special Education Cases

Interested in reading special education cases? Here is a timeline of some of the more important cases.
Think back to your high school civics class. We have three branches of federal government.The Legislative Branch known as Congress (Senate and House of Representatives). The US Congress passed IDEA 2004. Then there is the Executive Branch. That’s the President and the 5 million people who work for him/her. In the Executive Branch, we find the US Department of Education. They must enforce the law that Congress passed. The also promulgate regulations that are consistent with the law.  The third branch is the Judicial Branch. It includes the US Supreme Court that has 9 Justices. They interpret laws according to the Constitution. The federal judicial system also has lower courts located in each state to hear cases involving federal issues. These special education cases have been decided by courts, based on the law that Congress passed.

Case   Impact
1954: Brown vs. Board of Education Can be viewed as the first LRE case! Segregated public schools are inherently unequal.
1967: Hobson vs. Hansen


IQ tests used to track students were culturally biased because they were standardized on a white, middle-class sample. It is unconstitutional as it discriminates against low income or African American students.
1970: Diana vs State Board of Ed. Assessments must be non-biased and given in student’s native language. In two landmark California cases, Diana v. State Board of Ed in 1970 and Larry P. v. Wilson Riles in 1971, plaintiffs complained about the disproportionately high minority enrollments in EMR (Educable Mentally Retarded) classrooms. Plaintiffs’ victory resulted in changes in the identification of students with the EMR label and their programs.  Please note that the term MR is offensive and we now use the term ID (Intellectual Disability).
1972: P.A.R.C. v. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania


“Expert testimony in this action indicates that all mentally retarded persons are capable of benefiting from a program of education and training… 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.” Please note that the term MR is offensive and we now use the term ID (Intellectual Disability).
1972: Mills vs. Board of Education of the District of Columbia Mills expanded the impact of the P.A.R.C. case beyond children with developmental disabilities. Must provide services regardless of district’s ability to pay.
1979: Armstrong vs. Kline Students with disabilities may be entitled to extended school year.
1979: Larry P vs. Riles IQ tests were most likely culturally biased, assuming in effect that black children were less intelligent than white children. African American students can no longer be forced into EMR (Educable Mentally Retarded) classes via discriminatory testing. Please note that the term MR is offensive and we now use the term ID (Intellectual Disability).
1981: Luke S. & Han S. vs. Nix, Class action law suit resulted in changes in assessment practices, including pre-referral intervention, curriculum based assessment, and in-service training for assessment staff.
1982: Board of Education Hendrick Hudson School District. v. Amy Rowley First special education case. US Supreme Court defines FAPE. See Endrew F case in 2017 for undated ruling on FAPE.
1983: Abrahamson vs. Hershman If a student with a disability requires residential placement then the school district must provide it
1984: Dept of Ed., State of Hawaii v. Katherine D “Congressional preference for educating handicapped children in classrooms with their peers is made unmistakably clear.” Please note that the term handicapped children is outdated and we now use the term child with a disability.
1984: Irving Independent School District v. Tatro Court’s first attempt to define the distinction between “school health services” and “medical services.” Related services include health services that do not require a licensed physician.
1984: Smith vs. Robinson School must pay for necessary residential placements
1985: School Committee of Town of Burlington, Mass. v. Massachusetts Department of Education Parents cannot be forced to waive their right to reimbursement if they place their child in an alternative school from the one recommended in the IEP. Parents who unilaterally change their child’s placement do so at their own financial risk, but they may be reimbursed if the placement is deemed to be an appropriate available option.
1988: Timothy W. vs. Rochester. N.H., School District Zero rejection – a core principal of IDEA, must be adhered to.
1988: Honig v. Doe, School discipline case. U.S. Supreme Court clarified procedural issues designed to protect children with disabilities. Schools cannot not expel students for behaviors related to their disabilities.
1989: Danny R. R. vs. State Board of Ed. Least Restrictive Environment – FAPE means student has right to be educated with their non-disabled peers to the maximum extent possible
1993: Zobrest vs Catalina School District District may pay for student services if needed even when the student with a disability attends a Catholic school without violating separation of church and state.
1993: Florence County School Dist. Four v. Carter If schools do not provide FAPE and a private school does, the parents are entitled to reimbursement, even if the placement is not a state approved special education school.
1993: Oberti v. Board of Education The presumption is that the student with a disability will be included with supplementary aids and services because it is “a fundamental value of the right to public education for children with disabilities.” If placement outside the classroom is necessary, the school district must then include the child in as many school programs with children who do not have disabilities “to the maximum extent appropriate.”
1994: Sacramento City School District  v. Rachel H Landmark victory regarding the right of students with disabilities to be educated alongside their nondisabled peers.
1999: Cedar Rapids Community School Dist. v. Garret F. The exception for “medical services” from IDEA’s related services provision only if services must be provided by a physician.
2001: Buckhannon v. West Virginia Dept. of Health and Human Resources, Absent some sort of resolution on the merits, or a judicial determination altering the legal position of the parties, attorney’s fees are not warranted.
2004: Shapiro v. Paradise Valley Unified School District The failure of the district to provide critical information is a denial of the parent’s right to participate.
2004: Zachary Deal v. Hamilton Bd. of Ed The district’s predetermined methodology violated the IDEA because it failed to consider the individual educational needs of the student prior to determining “appropriate” services.
2005: Schaffer v. Weast, Supreme Court held that the burden of proof in a due process hearing that challenges an IEP is placed upon the party seeking relief. However – this does NOT require that states who place the burden on the schools to change that.
2006: Arlington Cent. School Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Murphy IDEA does not authorize the payment of the experts’ fees of the prevailing parents.
2007: Winkelman v. Parma City School Dist., Supreme Court resolved the issue as to whether a non-lawyer parent of a child with a disability may prosecute IDEA actions pro se in federal court. Court said that the parents enjoy enforceable rights at the administrative stage, and it would be inconsistent with the statutory scheme to bar them from continuing to assert these rights in federal court.
2009: Forest Grove v. T.D. IDEA authorizes reimbursement for private special-education services when a public school fails to provide a FAPE and the private school placement is appropriate, regardless of whether the child previously received services through the public school. You do NOT have to try the public school before you get reimbursed for private school!
2013: Doug C. v. Hawaii If a parent was not included in the IEP meeting, then procedural process under IDEA was violated, and the IEP is invalid.
2014: F. H. v. Memphis City Schools


A settlement agreement written between school and parent, if not honored by school, is a breach of contract that is enforceable by the courts.
2017: Fry v. Napoleon Comm. Sch. District “We hold that exhaustion is not necessary when the gravamen of the plaintiff’s suit is something other than the denial of the IDEA’s core guarantee – what the Act calls a ‘free appropriate public education.”
2017: Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1 Supreme Court rejects the “de minimis” standard of FAPE! “A student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.”

Cases compiled by Attorney Anne I. Treimanis