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Supreme Court Rulings on P.L. 94-142

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Supporters and opponents of P.L. 94-142 alike agree that the federal law is one of the most thoroughly litigated in history. Four special-education cases have been decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The following is a summary of the Court's precedents on the subject.

Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley (1982)

The Court held that a New York school was not required to provide a sign-language intepreter for a deaf pupil. In the ruling, the Justices determined that although P.L. 94-142 requires schools to offer "personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the handicapped child to benefit educationally from that instruction," they do not have to ensure that handicapped students reach their "full potential."

Irving Independent School District v. Tatro (1984)

The Court ruled that a Texas school must provide sterile, intermittent catheterization services for a child with spinal bifida. In its decision, the Court determined that the law's "related services" provision requires schools to provide services such as catheterization if such services enable a handicapped child to remain at school during the day.

The Court stated that catheterization--a procedure that prevents kidney damage to children who cannot empty their bladders voluntarily--and other similar services "are no less related to the effort to educate than are services that enable the child to reach, enter, or exit the school."

Smith v. Robinson (1984)

The parents of a Rhode Island child with cerebral palsy who won a case brought under P.L. 94-142 could not be awarded legal fees for identical claims brought under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Court ruled last year. The Court held that "Congress intended that P.L. 94-142 be the exclusive avenue through which a plaintiff may assert an equal-protection claim to a publicly financed special education."

Because P.L. 94-142 does not contain a provision providing for awards of legal fees, the ruling essentially prohibits parents from re-ceiving such fees if they are the prevailing parties in special-education cases. A bill now pending in the Congress would nullify the effect of the ruling by permitting the awarding of legal fees under P.L. 94-142.

School Committee of the Town of Burlington v. Department of Education of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (1985)

The Court, interpreting a provision of P.L. 94-142 regarding the appropriateness of a child's "educational placement," decided this year that the parents of a handicapped child in Massachusetts could be reimbursed for tuition even though they took their son out of a public school and placed him in a private school without the approval of public-school officials.

The Court held that parents can be reimbursed in such situations if hearing officers or judges subsequently rule that the move was in the child's best interest. However, the Court warned that parents are not entitled to such payments if hearing officers or judges rule that the student's public-school placement was "appropriate" as defined under the law.--at

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