By Taylor Ey

Today the Fourth Circuit published its unanimous opinion in the civil case O.S. ex rel. Michael S. and Amy S. v. Fairfax County School Board.  Plaintiff-Appellant O.S. was a second grader in the Fairfax County School system (“Defendant”) at the time the case originated.  O.S. has several disorder that qualify him for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).  Before he started kindergarten in Fairfax County schools, a team developed an individualized education plan (“IEP”), which O.S.’s parents approved.  O.S. then went to public school in the Defendant school system for kindergarten and first grade.  Before O.S.’s second grade year, the team proposed a revised IEP, but O.S.’s parents did not approve it.  O.S.’s parents and the team were unable to agree on a revised IEP, and the parents sought recourse at a due process hearing.

Procedural History: Due Process Hearing and Federal District Court

Under the IDEA, the due process hearing is the first administrative remedy available to a petitioner that believes he or she is not being provided a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”), where the hearing officer makes a determination.  Any unsatisfied party may bring a civil action in federal district court.  In this case, the hearing officer conducted a three-day hearing, heard from multiple witness, and ultimately found that the Defendant had complied with IDEA requirements, and that O.S.’s parents additional requests for accommodation were not necessary.  O.S. filed in district court.  The district court held that the Defendant did provide a FAPE.

Reviewing De Novo Whether Free Appropriate Public Education Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Is Still Defined As “Access” to Instruction “Individually Designed to Create Educational Benefit”

O.S.’s principal argument on appeal was whether the district court applied the appropriate standard in determining whether the Defendant school board provided O.S. with a FAPE.  O.S. argued that IDEA requires that students have a “meaningful” education benefit, not just a minimal one.  The Court examined IDEA’s procedural history and Supreme Court precedent to determine the correct legal standard.  Despite amendments to the act, including amendments after the seminal Supreme Court decision in Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982), the Court determined that the standard remains the same: FAPE requires “access” to instruction “individually designed to provide educational benefit.”  The Court added that this standard has always required that instruction provide more than minimal or trivial educational benefit.

The Court Affirmed the District Court’s Decision

The Fourth Circuit held that the same legal standard continues to apply, and to determine whether a school provides an FAPE, courts will examine whether an IEP provides access to some educational benefit.  Thus, the Court affirmed the decision of the district court.