DENVER — A federal judge on Monday ruled that the Douglas County School District did not provide an adequate education to a student who has autism and must reimburse his family for the cost of sending him to a private school for students with disabilities.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock represents the latest, and possibly final, chapter in a long-running legal battle between the family of a student known in court records as Endrew F. and the 68,000-student school district that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a unanimous ruling last year, the high court stated that federal law requires public schools to offer special education programs that meet a higher standard than simply the bare minimum. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the March 2017 opinion that federal law requires an educational program be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The high court didn’t say whether Douglas County had reached that bar with the individualized educational program it offered Endrew and remanded the case back to the district court to make that determination.

Babcock reasoned that once the Supreme Court elevated the previous standard of a “de minimis” — or minimum — approach to special education to a higher standard of “markedly more demanding,” Douglas County’s efforts to provide Endrew with a special education curriculum had been insufficient. He said the district is on the hook for the student’s private tuition.

“I order that petitioner and his parents are entitled to reimbursement of their private school placement from the district … as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees and litigation costs …” Babcock wrote.

Endrew’s mother, known in court records as Jennifer F., was reached by phone Monday night at her family’s home in Highlands Ranch. She said they were “still processing it, but it’s a little overwhelming.” The family filed its suit against the school district without using their last name.

“It is a vindication,” she said of a case that began nearly eight years ago.

The family has until March 5 to file a brief that accounts for all costs they are owed in the case.

Jack Robinson, the attorney for the family, said that will likely amount to a total “in the seven figures.” Endrew started attending Firefly Autism, a Denver school that specializes in working with children who have autism, in 2010 at a cost of about $70,000 a year. His mother said Endrew, now 18, will likely continue attending the school until he turns 21.

“This is an enormous victory for all parents and all children with disabilities,” Robinson said Monday.

The Douglas County School District issued a statement Monday saying it is “in the process of assessing the ruling, along with next steps.”

“Regardless of today’s outcome, DCSD will continue to support the learning and well-being of every student, thanks to our dedicated professionals who work with our 68,000 students on a daily basis,” said spokeswoman Paula Hans.

Monday’s ruling is the latest of many in a closely watched case in which a Highlands Ranch couple pulled Endrew out of Summit View Elementary after he began to exhibit severe behavioral issues, including banging his head, dropping to the floor, disrobing and running away from school. Convinced the school wasn’t doing enough to help their son progress academically, the couple sent him to Firefly.

They wanted the school district to reimburse them for the tuition they paid for their son’s private schooling, citing the district’s shortcomings in trying to accommodate their son with adequate instruction. Three different courts sided with the district, claiming that federal law only requires that schools provide students with “some educational benefit,” a standard they determined Douglas County had met with Endrew.

In concluding last year that the standard was too low, the U.S. Supreme Court in effect dismissed the “minimum” threshold that had been set by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The justices delivered their opinion the same week that Neil Gorsuch appeared before the U.S. Senate to defend his ultimately successful nomination to the Supreme Court.

While on the 10th Circuit, Gorsuch ruled in a separate case that educational benefits that were “merely” more than the minimum were enough to meet the standard set by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Jennifer F., Endrew’s mother, said that while the judge’s ruling Monday was important to her and her family specifically, it was the opinion handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court last year — one raising the bar for special education in public schools — that was critical on a wider level.

That ruling, she said, has already helped other families she knows who are trying to get a better education for their children with special needs.

“It is already making a difference in the lives of other families,” she said.

© 2018 The Denver Post
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

Read more stories like this one. Sign up for Disability Scoop's free email newsletter to get the latest developmental disability news sent straight to your inbox.