Wednesday, March 3, 1999

Schools must pay
for care for disabled

Star-Bulletin staff and wire service reports


Public schools, including those in Hawaii, must pay for one-on-one nursing services for some disabled students during the school day under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling today.

Doug Houck, who heads the state Department of Education's special-education section, said he doesn't expect the decision to have a big impact here.

"This decision is consistent with decisions coming down probably over the last 25 years," he said.

"We are already providing a wide range of services depending on individual education plans."

Shelby Floyd, one of the attorneys for plaintiffs in the Felix consent decree, agreed that the schools already provide many of the required services for physically disabled children.

But the decision opens the way for parents of significantly disabled children receiving services at home to push to get them into classroom settings with their peers, she said.

The court, by a 7-2 vote in the case of an Iowa teen-ager, said such continuous care as one-on-one nursing is not medical treatment and therefore must be publicly funded under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The case, closely watched by school administrators and special-education advocates nationwide, means the Cedar Rapids school district must pay thousands of dollars a year to provide nursing care for Garret Frey, a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic who is now a high school sophomore.

The justices had been told by the National School Boards Association that "school district budgets cannot shoulder the additional financial strain."

"In light of congressional failure to provide the state and local education agencies with adequate financial assistance to pay for the costs of special education, any judicial interpretations of the IDEA which inflicts additional obligations . . . fall inordinately on already overburdened local public education budgets," the association had contended in a friend-of-the-court brief.

But Charlene Frey, Garret's mother, praised the ruling. "It's going to mean more for other kids than it means for Garret," she said when reached at her home. "I'm glad it will mean everything to other kids."

Rep. Alex Santiago, chairman of the state House Health Committee, said legislators will need to examine the court ruling to see how it fits into what the state is doing under the Felix consent decree. The consent decree requires services necessary to help children with mental health conditions receive an education.

Houck said the federal law has been beneficial for young people with disabilities, but when it was enacted in the 1970s, the federal government said it would provide 40 percent of the cost of the services. But funding consistently has remained at 7 percent, he said.

The federal law provides that all children with disabilities receive a "free appropriate public education." Under it, public schools are required to provide various "special education and related services," but an exception is made for medical treatment.

Garret, described by Justice John Paul Stevens today as a "friendly, creative and intelligent young man," was paralyzed from the neck down in a motorcycle accident when he was 4 years old.

His daily health care includes urinary catheterization, suctioning of his tracheotomy, providing food and drink, repositioning in his wheelchair, monitoring his blood pressure and someone familiar with the various alarms on his ventilator.

School officials in Cedar Rapids said the special help Garret requires so he can attend his local high school is so involved and so expensive it should be considered medical treatment. A federal appeals court disagreed, and today the Supreme Court said the appeals court was right.

"This case is about whether meaningful access to the public schools will be assured, not the level of education that a school must finance once access is attained," Stevens wrote. for the court.

Joining Stevens were Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

Justices Clarence Thomas and Anthony M. Kennedy dissented. Thomas said the decision "blindsides unwary states with fiscal obligations that they could not have anticipated."

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