Three Georgetown University Law Center students working with the GULC Appellate Courts Immersion Clinic contributed to the legal defense of students with mental and physical disabilities in a Supreme Court case, which was decided 8-0 in their favor March 22.
Led by Brian Wolfman, a GULC professor who directs the clinic, and clinic teaching fellow Wyatt Sassman, the students, Claire Chevrier (LAW ’17), Anna Deffebach (LAW ’17) and Meghan Breen (LAW ’17) researched and wrote parts of the opening merits brief, which detailed the facts of the case, before the court in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.
The court decided on behalf of the plaintiffs, Endrew F., a young boy with autism in Colorado, and his parents, who sued the Douglas County School District under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The plaintiffs argued the education Endrew was receiving did not qualify as a “free appropriate public education” as required by the federal special education law.
Schools must now develop more ambitious plans designed by school teachers and administrators for students with disabilities. Before this ruling, the federal Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, maintained that the law simply demands “de minimis,” or a program that shows the student has made some annual progress.
The plaintiffs argued that this standard allowed for vague interpretations of the law at the detriment to students with disabilities.
According to Chevrier, although the IDEA requires all schools receiving federal funding to provide students with a free, appropriate public education, the case determined what level of benefit fulfilled the act’s requirements.
Deffebach said the case serves as a landmark decision in disability law, because it affects students with disabilities in every public school across the country.
“Almost everybody knows somebody, whether a family friend, or a relative, or a friend’s family member, who needs a unique education, whether it’s ADD or dyslexia or autism,” Deffebach said. “It’s something that affects a lot of people.”
Wolfman began work on the case in 2015 when he was directing Stanford Law School’s Supreme Court Litigation Clinic.
He said he was inspired to join the case because the IDEA did not go far enough in assuring the rights of disabled students.
“Congress said [the IDEA] had ambitious goals for children with disabilities, and the notion that in substance all they had to be provided was educational advancement that was merely more than de minimis, just above trivial, struck me as just outrageous in the moral or ethical sense, and so we wanted to pursue the case,” Wolfman said.
Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts agreed with this sentiment while writing for the unanimous court.
“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote. “The IDEA demands more.”
The Supreme Court’s decision will immediately affect school systems, according to Wolfman.
Wolfman said this decision can help schools make the plans more closely tailored to the needs of students.
“If a school district wants to do the right thing, its legal counsel will inform it of the importance of this decision, and that should have immediate downstream effects on meetings that parents have with teachers to design IEP,” Wolfman said.
The three law students who worked on the case all agreed that an important next step is access to resources to enforce the ruling in low-income school districts.
Breen said education of law is crucial to ensuring all students receive an appropriate education.
“It’s a niche field of law that’s very necessary but also very set on the ground. It’s very hard for those individuals to access those rights,” Breen said.
Chevrier also said the challenges of the case demonstrated the need for greater legal resources for parents trying to defend their children with disabilities.
She will be spearheading free legal clinics in juvenile detention centers and homeless shelters in the coming year to help combat this challenge.
“Endrew’s parents were really champions and they fought for long and were able to put forward so much of their own time and resources into getting what they needed for their child. Not everybody has that opportunity,” Chevrier said. “Systems need to be put in place that make education law more accessible for those who do not have the means to fight for their children.”
Chevrier was a special education teacher before studying at GULC, and focused most of her law school career on education law, which she said granted her the firsthand experience necessary throughout the case.
“I had intended to remain a special education teacher and I never wanted to become a lawyer when I realized that the kids who I was teaching didn’t have access to rights they were entitled to under the IDEA,” Chevrier said.
The GULC Clinic also afforded Deffebach and Breen the opportunity to work on the case, in part because of their focus on appellate litigation.
While Chevrier focused mostly on legal research, Deffebach and Breen were responsible for telling Endrew’s story.
“We got to go really in-depth into reading the documents and the records and painting a picture of who Endrew is and how the case got here,” Deffebach said.
Wolfman said he was highly impressed with his students’ work throughout the case.
“It was an enormous privilege to work on this case and the fact that Endrew’s parents put their trust in us both in the clinical students at Stanford and the clinical students here at Georgetown is an enormous honor,” Wolfman said. “It was an honor to work on this case and to work with students so capable and dedicated.”
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