Published Online:

Court Orders Catheterization Service for Student

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Washington--The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that school systems must provide handicapped students with catheterization and other health services in order to help them benefit from education.

But, the Court added in another opinion handed down the same day, they are not required to provide attorney's fees to parents who win lawsuits seeking such services.

In a pair of cases that school boards and civil-rights groups viewed as major tests of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, P.L. 94-142, the Court on July 6 upheld rulings by federal appeals courts in Texas and Massachusetts.

In the first case, Irving Independent School District v. Tatro (Case No. 83-558), the Justices rejected a Texas school district's argument that catheterization--a procedure that prevents kidney damage in children who cannot empty their bladders voluntarily--is a "medical service" not required under the law. (See page 29 for the text of the Court's decision.)

Related Services

The law requires districts to provide handicapped children with "related services ... as may be required to assist a handicapped child to benefit from special education." Such services are to include medical services "except that such ... services shall be for diagnostic and evaluation purposes only." Education Department regulations further define related services to include school-health services that can be administered by someone other than a physician.

The parents of 8-year-old Amber Tatro sued the Irving, Tex., school district after it refused to include6catheterization in the girl's individualized education plan. The parents argued that without the procedure their daughter would not be able to remain in school and thus benefit from special education.

"A service that enables a handicapped child to remain at school during the day is an important means of providing the child with the meaningful access to education that Congress envisioned," Chief Justice Warren E. Burger wrote for the Court. Catheterization and other similar services, he said, "are no less related to the effort to educate than are services that enable the child to reach, enter, or exit the school."

Financial Hardship

The National School Boards Association and several other groups filed briefs in the case on behalf of the Texas district, warning the Court that it would impose severe financial handships on schools by broadening the definition of "related services."

The Court, however, ruled that the existing definition represents "a reasonable interpretation of congressional intent."

Furthermore, "in order to minimize the [school district's] fears" of financial hardship, the Court noted that its decision did not require schools to provide handicapped students with equipment like catheters or wheelchairs. It added that health services required by the law did not have to be provided by physicians but by school nurses or minimally trained lay persons.

The Court also noted that the catheterization procedure required by Amber was so simple that members of her family perform it and that she would soon be able to do it herself.

Attorney's Fees

In another section of the ruling also dealing with costs, the Court overturned the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit's ruling that the school district had also violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and thus was responsible for paying the Tatro's attorney's fees. In so ruling, the Justices referred to their decision in the other handicapped-rights case decided that day, Smith v. Robinson (No. 82-2120).

In that case, the Court ruled 6 to 3 that the parents of a Rhode Island child with cerebral palsy who had won a case under P.L. 94-142 could not win legal fees for similar claims under the 1973 law and Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act of 1871.

Although P.L. 94-142 guarantees certain rights against discriminatory treatment, it does not provide for the awarding of legal fees. In general, plaintiffs in cases charging bias against the handicapped in education also allege violations of the other civil-rights laws, which do provide for the awarding of attorney's fees.

In the Smith case, a federal district judge ruled that the parents were entitled to such fees, but that ruling was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The appeals panel held that although P.L. 94-142 does not provide for lawyer's fees, its "comprehensive" nature points to the Congress's intent to close off the availability of Section 504 and 1983 claims, and thus, the awarding of attorney's fees.

'Exclusive Avenue'

Agreeing with the court's interpretation, Associate Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote that "Congress intended [P.L. 94-142] to be the exclusive avenue through which a plaintiff may assert an equal-protection claim to a publicly financed special education."

The law, he continued, "appears to represent Congress's judgment that the best way to ensure a free appropriate public education for handicapped children is to clarify and make enforceable the rights of those children while at the same time endeavoring to relieve the financial burden imposed on those agencies responsible to guarantee those rights."

Where Sections 504 and 19833"[add] nothing to the substantive rights of a handicapped child, we cannot believe that Congress intended to have the careful balance struck in [P.L. 94-142] upset on reliance on [Sections 504 and 1983] for otherwise unavailable damages or for an award of attorney's fees," Justice Blackmun concluded.

Strong Dissent

"It is at best ironic that the Court has managed to impose this burden on handicapped children in the course of interpreting a statute wholly intended to promote the educational rights of those children," wrote Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. in a strongly worded dissenting opinion joined by Associate Justices Thurgood Marshall and John Paul Stevens.

Until the Congress revisits the matter, he said, "the handicapped children of this country whose difficulties are compounded by discrimination and other deprivations of constitutional rights will have to pay the costs," he said.

In light of its ruling in the Smith case, the Court also on the same day vacated a ruling by a federal appeals court that would have required Georgia schools to provide year-round instruction for severely retarded students.

Last October, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled in McDaniel v. Georgia Association of Retarded Citizens (No. 83-1431) that the state and the Savannah-Chatham public schools had violated both P.L. 94-142 and Section 504 for failing to extend the school year for handicapped children beyond the usual 180 days. The Justices ordered the appeals panel to rehear the case.

Before closing out its 1983-84 session, the Court also took action in the following cases of interest to educators:

School Discipline

New Jersey v. T.L.O. (No. 83-712). By a 6-to-4 vote, the Court on July 6 decided to schedule a second round of arguments next fall in a New Jersey case concerning the rights of students against unreasonable searches by school officials.

The state had asked the Court to overturn a ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court that evidence obtained during a search of a student's purse must be excluded from court proceedings because the assistant principal who uncovered the evidence did not have a reasonable basis for the search.

In an unusual move, the Justices ordered lawyers for the state and the student to prepare briefs on the underlying question of whether the search itself was unconstitutional, a question that the state did not address in its appeal. The state had only asked the Court to decide whether the evidence was barred in criminal or delinquency procedings by the Fourth Amendment's exclusionary rule.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed on July 31, the Reagan Administration urged the Court to give school officials more latitude in conducting searches of students.

"School searches--conducted in a prompt and informal way--are a vital means of protecting students and teachers from weapons and drugs and enforcing school disciplinary standards," the Justice Department argued.

The filing of the brief marked the first time that the Administration had followed through on a promise made to school officials last winter to lend its support to them in lawsuits involving school discipline.

Affirmative Action

Firefighters Local Union No. 1784 v. Stotts (No. 83-206). In a potentially far-reaching civil-rights decision, the Court ruled on June 12 that lower courts may not set aside bona fide seniority systems to preserve the jobs of recently hired minority workers when layoffs are necessary.

The 6-to-3 decision came in a case involving the layoff of three senior white Memphis firefighters under the terms of a federal-district-court order designed to shield the jobs of newly hired black workers. Their temporary dismissals were upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The white firefighters, who normally would have been protected under the city's last-hired, first-fired seniority system, lost their jobs for a month in 1981 as a result of a municipal financial crisis.

Writing for the majority, Associate Justice Byron R. White said that courts were without authority to invalidate a seniority system that was protected by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The law explicitly protects bona fide seniority systems that were not put into place for discriminatory purposes.

Teachers' organizations had monitored the Memphis case closely because its outcome was expected to affect similar situations involving layoffs of school employees.

On June 25, however, the Court declined without comment to hear a similar case involving the layoff of teachers in Buffalo, N.Y.

In that case, Buffalo Teachers Federation v. Arthur (No. 83-665), a teachers' union had challenged a plan approved by a federal district judge in June 1972 for race-conscious hiring and layoffs of teachers. The plan was adopted as part of an overall plan to eliminate segregation in the school system.

Tax Exemptions

Allen v. Wright (No. 81-757). The Court on July 3 ruled 5 to 3 that individuals have no standing to contest the manner in which the Internal Revenue Service grants tax-exempt status to private schools.

The case had been filed by parents of black schoolchildren from seven states as a nationwide class action. They contended that the irs was administering too leniently its policy against providing tax-exempt status to racially discriminatory private schools.

The parents had never attempted to enroll their children in any of the schools whose tax-exempt status they were challenging. Instead, they contended that they were harmed by the mere fact of government aid to discriminatory private schools and by the fact that such aid contributed to segregation in nearby public schools.

Writing for the majority, Associ-ate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that, first, only those people who have been personally denied equal treatment can maintain such lawsuits. "Recognition of standing in such circumstances would transform the federal courts into 'no more than a vehicle for the vindication of the value interests of concerned bystanders,"' she wrote.

Justice O'Connor added that the parents' claim that the extension of tax-exempt status to the schools aided segregation in nearby public schools "is entirely speculative."

Draft Registration

Selective Service System v. Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (No. 83-276). The Court on July 5 upheld the constitutionality of a federal law that denies federal scholarships and grants to young men who fail to register for the draft.

The lawsuit, filed by six anonymous Minnesota students, contended that the 1983 law compelled them to incriminate themselves in violation of the Fifth Amendment and unconstitutionally determined guilt and inflicted a punishment against them without the protections of a trial.

In a 6-2 decision, the Court held first that, because the students were under no obligation to apply for federal financial aid, they were under no obligation to reveal their registration status and thus not forced to incriminate themselves.

Second, the Court said that the law did not inflict impermissible punishment because students can register late and still qualify for student aid. Because of this provision, wrote Chief Justice Warren E. Burger for the majority, the students "carry the keys of their prison in their own pockets."

"A statute that leaves open perpetually the possibility of qualifying for aid does not fall within the historical meaning of forbidden legislative punishment," he concluded.

School Desegregation

State of Missouri v. Liddell (No. 83-1721). The Justice Department filed papers with the Court on July 23 backing the state of Missouri's position that it should not be forced by lower federal courts to pay a substantial portion of the cost of desegregating schools in the St. Louis metropolitan area.

Although it praised the landmark voluntary desegregation plan involving schools in the city and 23 surrounding suburbs, the department contended that the state had been saddled with a financial burden disproportionate to the constitutional violations that it had been found guilty of.

The state share of the cost of the program is expected to reach $50 million in the upcoming school year.

The Justices are expected to hear oral arguments in the case this fall.

School Prayer

Wallace v. Jaffree (No. 83-812). In a case involving one of the top items on President Reagan's campaign agenda, the Justice Department on July 11 urged the Court to approve a "moment of silence" for quiet prayer or meditation in Alabama's public schools.

The state's moment-of-silence law "is perfectly neutral with respect to religious practice: it neither favors one religion over another nor conveys endorsement," the department argued in a friend-of-the-court brief.

The Court this summer also allowed the Administration to become involved in another case involving religion in schools.

On June 11, it granted the Administration permission to join in oral arguments supporting the Grand Rapids, Mich., public schools' practice of leasing space in religiously oriented schools for the purpose of offering instruction to their students. (See related story on page 13.)

The case, Grand Rapids v. Ball (No. 83-990), is also expected to be scheduled for oral argument in the fall.

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories