American Bar Association
Media Alerts
Media Alerts - O.S. v. Fairfax County School Board -- Fourth Circuit
Decrease font size
Increase font size
December 3, 2015
  O.S. v. Fairfax County School Board -- Fourth Circuit
The ABCs of IDEA: What Does it Mean to Get a Free and Appropriate Public Education

Areas of Law: Education, Administrative

Issue Presented: Whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") requires the school board's Individualized Education Programs ("IEP") to give each student a meaningful educational benefit.

Extended Summary: This case arises from a couple's challenge to the IEP that Fairfax County Public Schools implemented for their child, O.S., in the second grade. An IEP is required under IDEA to ensure that students with disabilities are given a "free and appropriate public education." It is also intended to give the student meaningful access to an educational benefit.

In this case, the student, O.S., had significant physical handicaps including a seizure disorder, a speech impediment, and a congenital heart condition. These conditions qualified O.S. as disabled under IDEA and thus required the school, in collaboration with O.S.'s parents, to develop IEPs for the student on a yearly basis. The first IEPs were developed for kindergarten and first grade and included speech therapy and in-class education, as well as special education and physical education. The parents agreed to these IEPs. However, when the second grade was approaching, the school made small revisions to the previous IEPs that the parents did not agree with.

IDEA allows parents to challenge an IEP in an administrative process if they do not agree with the school's assessment. The parents raised such a challenge because they felt O.S. should have access to both a one-on-one personal aide and a full-time nurse. In the administrative proceeding, the school presented fourteen witnesses and over two hundred exhibits detailing the progress that O.S. had been making under the current IEPs. The parents presented no witnesses and introduced only two tests suggesting that O.S. had regressed in his educational process due to the lack of one-on-one aide and full-time nursing services. The hearing was decided in favor of the school, and the parents appealed to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Virginia.

On appeal, the district court gave the requisite deference to the administrative process and determined that the school's IEPs were appropriate under the current law without the nurse and one-on-one aide. The parents argued that IDEA required that a student be given the tools necessary for meaningful educational benefit, which had not been achieved. The district disagreed and affirmed the administrative decision.

Since this was a statutory interpretation challenge to IDEA, the U.S. Circuit Court for the Fourth Circuit reviewed the District Court's decision de novo. In determining whether IDEA requires a meaningful education benefit to the student, the court held that the controlling law was decided in United States v. Rowley. In that case, the Supreme Court found that while IDEA requires meaningful access to a "free and appropriate public education," it only requires that the access be tailored to give the student some educational benefit. Despite this precedent, O.S. argued that 1997 and 2004 amendments to IDEA changed this standard. Relying on the restructured preamble indicating that Congress wanted to focus on providing higher expectations for students with special needs, as well as a decision by the 9th Circuit, O.S. argued that Congress changed the standard to require meaningful benefit to the student, not just meaningful access. The Fourth Circuit was not persuaded and held if Congress meant to derogate Supreme Court precedent it would have done so expressly. The court further stated that the educational benefit required was already determined to be meaningful under the current Rowley standard and that the school need only meet this standard when tailoring a student's access to a free and appropriate public education.

Panel: Judges Motz, Wynn, and Davis

Argument Date: 09/16/2015

Date of Issued Opinion: 10/19/2015

Docket Number:
No. 14-1994

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion

Case Alert Author: Alex H. Kelly, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law

Counsel: Dennis Craig McAndrews, MCANDREWS LAW OFFICES, Berwyn, Pennsylvania, for Appellants. John Francis Cafferky, BLANKINGSHIP & KEITH, P.C., Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Michael Edward Gehring, Caitlin Elizabeth McAndrews, MCANDREWS LAW OFFICES, Berwyn, Pennsylvania, for Appellants. Patricia A. Minson, BLANKINGSHIP & KEITH, P.C., Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Alexander H. Kelly, Univ. of Maryland Carey School of Law.

Case Alert Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 12/03/2015 11:20 AM     4th Circuit  

FuseTalk Enterprise Edition - © 1999-2018 FuseTalk Inc. All rights reserved.

Discussion Board Usage Agreement

Back to Top