Supreme Court Hears Arguments on Rights of Deaf Student

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Washington--The special-education plan developed for a 10-year-old deaf student by officials in her school district not only met the requirements of the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, but resulted in "outstanding academic achievement and social success" for the child, according to attorneys who last week argued the school district's case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But attorneys representing Amy Rowley, now a fourth grader in the Hendrick Hudson Central School District in N.Y., argued that the child will not reach her "full potential," nor will her education be equal to that of her nonhandicapped peers, unless school officials provide a sign-language interpreter in the classroom.

The case, Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, marks the first time that the U.S. Supreme Court has considered what constitutes an "appropriate" public education under the law, known as Public Law 94-142. It reached the Court after two lower courts upheld the parents' contention that under this law, the school district is required to provide the interpreter.

Supreme Court First

It was also the first time that the Court took extraordinary steps to communicate with a handicapped attorney; Michael A. Chatoff, who argued for the Rowleys, is deaf, and "heard" the Justices' questions through a transcription displayed on an electronic terminal.

The outcome of the case may be of substantial importance to public-school educators in the U.S., who have been struggling for seven years to interpret the word "appropriate" as it applies to the more than four million handicapped children who receive assistance under the law. Commonly regarded as the "most litigious" and complicated education law in history, P.L. 94-142 has inspired numerous lawsuits against states and school systems that are required to provide services to handicapped children.

State and local school officials, meanwhile, have remained uncertain about how far they must go to meet many of the law's requirements. In particular, they are unsure of the extent to which the law requires special services, such as catheterization, related to a specific type of handicap.

The Supreme Court arguments by the lawyers for the school district and the Rowleys focused on that issue: Has the district provided extra services adequate to make Amy Rowley "a functioning member of society," as the system's lawyers argued in the federal district court? Or should it provide, in addition, a sign-language interpreter who could enable her to reach what her lawyers call "her full potential?"

The case also raises questions about the courts' role in the process of educating handicapped children, according to Raymond G. Kuntz, who argued the school district's position. When reviewing a challenge to a school district's plan for a handicapped child, are the courts confined to administrative questions--does the plan meet the requirements of the law--or may they revise the state's stated procedures for providing "free, appropriate" education for handicapped students?

In addition, Mr. Kuntz noted, the case is an example of an "age-old problem" that confronts school boards: When parents and school officials disagree about what best meets the needs of children, who makes the final decision?

Elementary School First

More than five years ago, when Amy Rowley entered kindergarten in the Westchester County district, she was the first deaf student to be enrolled in her elementary school, according to Mr. Kuntz, and school officials took "extraordinary care" to make sure that she received appropriate services.

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