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Mercer Island School District prevails in landmark special education lawsuit

After a long and arduous battle, the Mercer Island School District has prevailed in one of the most important special education cases in the nation. School districts across the country have relied for more than 25 years on a standard established by the U.S. Supreme Court, which requires public schools to ensure that students with disabilities learn the general education curriculum and are not excluded from classes with their general education peers. This case challenged that standard.

In this case, a dyslexic student’s parents sought to have the MISD pay more than $150,000 for the student to finish high school at a private boarding school on the East Coast and attorney’s fees of more than $160,000. During each school year, the MISD offered the student specially designed instruction in reading, writing, math and study skills. It also provided the accommodations and supports necessary to enable her to participate and learn the same curriculum as her peers in science, social studies and elective classes.

In 2006, an administrative law judge determined that the MISD had provided the student with an appropriate program and decided in the district’s favor. The parents appealed that decision to the U.S. District Court, where the judge refused to apply the standard set by the Supreme Court and announced a new standard requiring districts to cure students’ disabilities. This created uncertainty for educators around the nation, so the MISD sought clarification by appealing the District Court decision.

In August 2009, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed the Supreme Court standard and sent it back to the District Court, which just issued its new decision in favor of the school district. The MISD has prevailed at every level of this controversy, with the exception of the District Court’s first, now-discredited decision.

Superintendent Dr. Plano noted, “We are proud of our staff who worked hard to serve this student and to develop an educational program that would provide benefit to her. We are happy that the court’s opinion recognizes the value of the expertise and experience of the teachers, school psychologists and school administrators employed by MISD. We are saddened, however, that the cost of defending the district’s program takes resources away from providing educational programs for students.”

For more information: Dr. Gary Plano, superintendent, 236-3301; or Pat Turner, director of special education, 236-3326. For details, go to 'District loses special ed lawsuit', by the Reporter, Dec. 13, 2006, or www.misd.k12.wa.us.

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