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Stronger Law in Massachusetts Prevails Over P.L. 94-142, Federal Court Rules

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A federal appeals court has ruled that schools must use state law as a standard in serving handicapped students where its provisions exceed those of federal law.

The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in David D. v. Dartmouth School Committee also allows state education officials to be challenged in federal court on the basis of state law.

Lawyers familiar with the case said last week that because some 12 states have laws with provisions stronger than those of the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, P.L. 94-142, the ruling could have a "very important impact" on special education.

The case is the first to address the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last year in Pennhurst v. Halderman, which stated that under the 11th Amendment state law usually cannot be applied against state officials in federal court.

However, the appeals court ruled that the Congress specifically intended P.L. 94-142 to "incorporate" state special-education laws that are stronger, thereby taking precedence over federal law. The court's ruling in the David D. case, the lawyers said, thus opens the way for federal-court enforcement of state law against state and local officials.

The Massachusetts case involves a handicapped student named David D., now 18, whose parents had asked school officials for several years to place their son in a residential school for the mentally retarded.

However, school officials refused, saying David received appropriate education through a special-education program at Dartmouth High School.

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

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