In 2004, Kate Belf Becker, an Educational Studies major at Trinity College, completed her senior thesis entitled “Who Prevails in Special Education and Why?” The inspiration behind Belf Becker’s study emerged from her internship experience at the Connecticut Department of Education’s Bureau of Special Education and Pupil Services Due Process Unit. She was able to examine hearing officer decisions in order to investigate her questions regarding which side emerged victorious in hearing decisions and the factors that contributed to their triumphs (Belf Becker 1). Becker studied hearings relating specifically to autism that occurred between 1998-2003. Belf Becker’s study intrigued me for a variety of personal reasons. My brother was diagnosed with autism in 2001, which falls between Belf Becker’s time frame of cases she studied. However, since approximately fifteen years have passed since this study was conducted, numerous Connecticut hearing decisions have been determined and various federal laws have either been created or edited to reflect the concerns of families whose children with autism receive special education services. The following research aims to examine certain aspects of Belf Becker’s study such as which side prevailed and whether the case concerned a private or public placement. This research examines all of these aforementioned factors, and additionally seeks to explore other aspects of Connecticut hearing decisions related to autism such as how many students are eligible for free or reduced lunch in the district, and the percentage of students with disabilities in the district the case takes place in. Recent policy decisions at the national level are also examined. The purpose of this research is to discover if policies at the national level, as well as any of the previously described factors affected hearing decisions in Connecticut since Belf Becker’s study.
This paper studies fully adjudicated Connecticut hearing decisions that related to autism from 2009-2019 since fully adjudicated decisions prior to 2009 were not available. There were 172 cases in total (including cases not concerning autism), but this study examines a sample consisting of 15 percent of the total cases, with all 15 percent specifying a case of autism. Belf Becker was able to identify a variety of common themes within the court cases she studied. This included whether the Board or the students prevailed, and the level of income of the families represented in some cases. Belf Becker discovered that the Board prevailed in 52 percent of cases but the students prevailed in 41 percent. Yet, in the 15 percent of cases from 2009-2019, the Board prevailed in 63 percent of cases, with the student only winning 17 percent of cases. The increase in the Board prevailing and the student losing in cases studied from 2009-2019 was astounding, which therefore prompted the question of why this change occurred since the Belf Becker study. Thus, this essay argues that the Board has overwhelmingly prevailed in more cases in the past ten years due to changes in federal laws regarding the Individual with Disabilities with Education Act, as well as whether the case was a private placement. It additionally argues that whether the case dealt with a specific aspect of IDEA, such as the Least Restrictive Environment, or the Free and Appropriate Public Education principle, did not matter when concerning who prevailed in a case. Some factors, such as the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch and the percentage of students with a disability in the district present interesting statistics, but do not guarantee a winning case.
It is imperative to note that most Connecticut hearing decisions between 2009-2019 deal with disputes over the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA was renewed in 1990, and was previously known as the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act. There are six aspects of IDEA that outline rights for people with disabilities. Two of these six principles appear often in hearing decisions. One is the Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE ensures that the education the child in question receives is correct for the child and follows their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which specifies certain goals the child should achieve within their educational setting. FAPE often comes into question during issues of outplacement, and cases involving FAPE examine whether or not the public education system the child is in is providing appropriate services or if they should be placed in a different environment better suited to meet their needs. Additionally, Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) ensures that a child with a disability is put in an environment that is best suited for them. They should be as integrated as possible, and it is important to note that this principle is constantly evolving; meaning that what the least restrictive environment for a child was one day may not be the same as the next (Sections of the IDEA Statute). These aspects of IDEA occurred quite frequently in hearing decisions, with parents often not agreeing with the board over provisions related to the aforementioned principles of IDEA.
The cases studied between 2009-2019, similarly with the cases Belf Becker studied from 1998-2003, all concern autism. Autism is a developmental disability that now affects 1 in 59 children worldwide (CDC 2018). During the time Belf Becker conducted her study, specifically in the year 2000, 1 in 150 children were affected by autism. It has been deemed as the fastest growing serious developmental disability in the world, and is quickly growing.
Figure 1: Data taken from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Students diagnosed with autism are, by law, eligible to receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
IDEA updates since the Belf Becker study are importantto understand in order to track changes overtime. For instance, one Supreme Court case in particular has clarified the Free and Appropriate Public Education principle of IDEA. One is the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District case in 2017, which also concerned a student with autism. In this case, the Supreme Court was able to clarify what it means for a student with a disability to receive an “appropriate” education. Mitchell Yell states that the Supreme Court determined that “the Court rejected the parent’s higher standard, which was that the IDEA required schools to provide an educational program aimed to provide educational opportunities equal to those provided nondisabledstudents to meet the IDEA’s FAPE standard. Nonetheless, the Court clearly embraced an educational benefit standard higher than the de minimis standard” (Yell 12). Therefore, the court found a middle ground in this case that raised the de minimis standard, and concluded that as long as the student is receiving some educational benefit, then the education is appropriate.
Since this aforementioned case raised the de minimis standard for school districts, which ensured that students in a special education setting would receive educational benefit, my personal theory was that this ruling would result in greater victories for families of children with autism since the case emphasized the importance of educational benefit. However, the hearing decisions studied from 2009-2019 still overwhelmingly sided with the Board. This is possibly because even though some Connecticut hearing decisions discovered that the Board in question was not providing an appropriate education for the student, many ruled that the the education the Board provided was appropriate. Of all the hearing decisions examined, 16 of the 24 dealt with the FAPE principle. In 14 of those cases, the Board prevailed. Possible reasoning behind this statistic is the fact that even though the Supreme Court raised the de minimis standard, all the Board must do is ensure the student in question is receiving at least some educational benefit. As long as the student is receiving some educational benefit, then they are not entitled to more services from the Board. They are also not likely to receive tuition reimbursements if the student is enrolled in a private institution since the parents were not pleased with the Board’s educational program. As long as the Board’s plan involves some educational benefit, by law, they are not required to provide anything more.
One factor that is interesting to examine when looking at recent hearing decisions is the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch in a district. As previously mentioned, students only prevailed in approximately 17 percent of cases, meaning that the student only won in four out of the 24 cases studied. Yet, what was intriguing about this statistic was the fact that in two of these cases, the student won in districts that had a couple of the highest percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch in the district; 55.60 percent and 58.00 percent respectively. This statistic was intriguing since it showed how socioeconomic status can play a role in hearing decisions, however, it may not always guarantee a win from eitherparty. Similarly, Belf Becker examined socioeconomic status, although she studied median household income of families. In her work, she discovered that in districts with a median household income that was less than $43,000, the student was able to win 38 percent of the time. When the median household income was over $60,000, the student won 53 percent of the time. Belf Becker then writes: “Therefore, it can be concluded that access to representation based on income levels the playing field but does not guarantee a winning case (Belf Becker 17).” Even though Belf Becker studied median household income and this essay examines the percentage of free and reduced lunch in the district, the results are still very similar, which shows that socioeconomic status has not created a huge change in hearing decisions since the Belf Becker study.
Another intriguing statistic this essay studies is the percentage of students that have a disability in certain districts. In the previously mentioned district that had 55.60 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, it also had the highest percentage of students with a disability of the 24 hearing decisions studied, which was 22.90 percent. The student prevailed in this case. Even though this was an interesting statistic, percentage of students with a disability in the district still does not guarantee a winning case. A student prevailed in another case that had one of the lowest percentages of students with a disability in the district, which was 11.30 percent. Therefore, even though percentage of students with a disability in a district could possibly help a certain side prevail, it does not guarantee a winning case.
In her study, Belf Becker examined whether a case dealt with a private placement. She discovered that with cases of private placement, the Board prevailed 45 percent of the time, the student prevailed in 45 percent of cases, and both sides prevailed 10 percent of the time (Belf Becker 13). Although, in this study, 11 of the 24 hearing decisions examined were private placement cases, with the Board prevailing in seven of those 11 cases, equaling 64 percent. Students prevailed in two of these private placements, totaling 18 percent of private placement cases. In one of these cases, both parties prevailed, which constitutes nine percent of cases, and one case was dismissed, which also constitutes nine percent of the 11 private placement cases. Therefore, during Belf Becker’s study, the percentage of families prevailing and the percentage of the Board prevailing was exactly the same. However, in the hearing decisions studied from 2009-2019, the Board overwhelmingly prevailed in cases involving private placement. This shift since Belf Becker’s study can be attributed to the Endrew F v. Douglas County School District Supreme Court case. Again, this case clarified that school districts needed to ensure that the student was receiving some educational benefit, and the court determined a middle ground between the de minimis and de maximis standards. Thus, the hearing decisions in Connecticut from 2009-2019 may not have been as lenient to reimburse a student’s outplacement tuition or deem the Board’seducation plan as inappropriate since if the Board is providing a plan that allows the student to receive some educational benefit, then private placements are not as likely to be approved or paid for by the district.
One final factor that this study examines that the Belf Becker study does not is the principle of IDEA that applies to each hearing decision. Of all 24 cases this study covers, 16 are disputes over the Free and Appropriate Education principle, two concerning the Least Restrictive Environment, and six that concern whether the student in question received an appropriate disability evaluation from the board. While it is intriguing to examine the nature of each hearing decision studied, when determining a prevailing party, the type of case did not matter. For example, out of the four cases in which students prevailed, two cases were about FAPE and two concerned appropriate evaluations. However, the Board was able to prevail in cases involving FAPE and appropriate evaluations as well. Therefore, there is no pattern between the nature of a hearing decision and the party that prevailed.
In conclusion, the Board has overwhelmingly prevailed in hearing decisions since the Belf Becker study. This is an overall trend, but it is especially prevalent in cases concerning private placements. This disparity can be largely attributed to Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, since it concluded that students only need to receive an educational benefit between the de minimis and de maximis standards. Percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch and students with disabilities in a district provide some patterns, but do not guarantee a winning case, which is similar to Belf Becker’s examination of socioeconomic status. The principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Act that the case dealt with provided no pattern to constitute a winning party because there was no principle that stood out when examining which party prevailed. Therefore, there has been a significant shift in regards to the Board winning more cases than the student, yet, it is mostly attributed to federal law as opposed to other previously mentioned factors.
Belf-Becker, Kate. “Who Prevails in Special Education and Why?” “Educational Studies Senior Research Project, Trinity College Digital Repository” Apr. 2004, https://digitalrepository.trincoll.edu/theses/94.
“Special Education Hearing Decisions.” Connecticut Department of Education, http://portal.ct.gov/SDE/Special-Education/Special-Education-Hearing-Decisions. Accessed 8 Apr. 2019.
Yell, Mitchell. The Law and Special Education. 5th ed.
CDC. “Data and Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder| CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 Apr. 2019, https://www.cdc.gov?ncbddd/autism/data.html
Yell, Mitchell L.,and David F. Bateman. “Free Appropriate Public Education and Endrew F. v. Douglas County School System (2017): Implications for Personnel Preparation.” Teacher Education and Special Education, vol. 42, no. 1, Feb. 2019, pp. 6–17. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/0888406417754239
“IDEA News and Updates.” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, https://sites.ed.gov/idea/idea-news-and-updates/. Accessed 3 May 2019.