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Federal Courts Differ on Degree of Care Schools Must Provide for Handicapped

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Federal courts in Massachusetts and Virginia have reached divergent conclusions concerning a school's legal obligation to provide around-the-clock care for special-education students.

In Massachusetts, which has a detailed state special-education law, a federal district judge held last month that schools must use the state law as a standard where its provisions exceed those of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. That higher standard, he said, required the school in the case to provide 24-hour care for a handicapped student so that he could reach "maximum" development.

In the Virginia case, Matthews v. Davis, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld, on the basis of a U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of P.L. 94-142, a lower court's decision that a school district could stop providing 24-hour care for a "profoundly mentally retarded" 16-year-old boy.

The appellate court, in its August ruling, cited Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, the 1982 case in which the Supreme Court held that P.L. 94-142's requirement that public schools provide "free and appropriate public education" to handicapped children does not obligate the schools to "maximize the potential" of such children.

Residential Care Sought

Until 1977, David Matthews was in a residential institution in Missouri, where his family lived. But when the family moved to Virginia's Chesterfield County, school authorities there determined that his educational needs could be met through a daytime special-education program in the public schools, according to John Rick, the lawyer for the Matthews family.

The Matthewses went before local and state school administrators, asking that David be placed in a residential home, but their request was denied.

In 1978, the Matthewses filed suit in federal district court, requesting that David be placed in a 24-hour-care program. The judge ruled that the school must redesign David's program to incorporate toilet-training and other basic functions.

The county decided to rent a private apartment for David and staff it with school personnel because the judge felt the educational program offered at the boy's school was superior to any residential treatment that could be provided, according to Oliver Rudy, a lawyer for the Chesterfield County School Board.

Private Program

Under that private program, which David participated in for several years, he was toilet-trained and learned to dress himself, Mr. Rick said. But he noted that even with the intensive around-the-clock help, David would never be able to function independently.

Mr. Rudy, the school board's lawyer, said that at first the 24-hour care was clearly educational. "But after a while it reached a point of diminishing returns," he added. "It was merely a point of reinforcing what he had already learned in school."

In 1982, the school board asked the judge to reconsider his decision ordering David placed in a private 24-hour program, and he issued an opinion in 1983. In the interim between the hearing and the court's decision, the Supreme Court decided Rowley.

The judge determined that David had done as well as could be expected under the private program and could now be helped just as easily at home as in a 24-hour program, Mr. Rick said. The court also determined that under Rowley, the district was no longer required to offer the maximum care necessary to educate the boy.

Decision Upheld

The family appealed, and in August the Fourth Circuit Court upheld the district court's opinion.

The question of the level of services offered a student like David is "precisely the issue analyzed by the Supreme Court in the Rowley case," the court said. It further noted that "the sole issue presented on appeal is whether the school system's proposed pro-gram of day school ... and living at home constitutes the 'free appropriate public education David is entitled to"' under P.L. 94-142. The court determined that it did.

David remained in the apartment pending the appeals court's decision and was then returned to his family's home. He is still participating in the special-education program at the elementary school, Mr. Rick said.

"We obviously think it's an incorrect reading of Rowley," he commented. "It's a restrictive reading, and takes the worst possibilities under that opinion and makes them law."

The Massachusetts Case

In David D. v. Dartmouth School Committee, U.S. District Judge Rya Zobel ruled last month that the Dartmouth, Mass., school district must provide 17-year-old David, a retarded boy, with a residential treatment program under a state law that requires any special-education program to ensure "maximum possible development."

The parents of "David D." had asked school officials for several years to place their son in a residential school but they had refused, saying David received appropriate education through a special-education program at the Dartmouth High School, according to Richard Howard, an attorney representing the boy's parents.

In 1983, David's parents filed suit in district court, asking that their son be placed in a residential home.

Judge Zobel, quoting a 1984 First U.S. Circuit Court opinion in the case of Burlington v. Department of Education, said that state law, when it is more stringent than federal law, "operates to determine what an appropriate education requires for a particular child in a given state."

Judge Zobel stated that "a residential program is necessary in order to teach the plaintiff to behave appropriately in situations lacking external control." She further noted that "the goal of any special-education program is to assist the student to maximize his ability to be independent as an adult."

State Appeal

Mr. Howard said he was pleased with the opinion, but noted that there are currently no openings for David in any residential homes. He said that if no openings appear in the near future, the family will ask the school to provide supplementary programs.

Mr. Howard also said that "at least a dozen states" have special-education statutory requirements--similar to those in Massachusetts--that require stiffer standards than federal special-education law provides.

Kim Murdock, an assistant state attorney general, said that the state will appeal the decision, contending that the federal court was an improper forum for the case. Citing the U.S. Supreme Court's January ruling in Pennhurst v. Halderman, Ms. Murdock said that states have a "certain amount of independent sovereignty in enforcing their laws or in deciding what their laws mean."

"State officials cannot be brought to federal court to comply with state law," Ms. Murdock added.

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