Thursday, October 14, 2004


Three autistic children who were part of a special education program in Stanislaus County, California, sued the county and the school district, alleging that the policy of providing a shorter school day to autistic students constitutes discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and California law. The District Court dismissed the action for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Ninth Circuit reversed. It held that "the pursuit of the IDEA due process remedies under the facts of this case will not 'further the general purposes of exhaustion and the congressional intent behind the administrative scheme." This is because the school district's policy of shorter school days for autistic children had nothing to do with the content of the children's individual education programs. The policy was an across-the-board administrative decision. The policy had been challenged by a complaint resolution procedure, which procedure was pursued by the students to completion. The Court held that this procedure constituted adequate administrative exhaustion.

Judge Clifton dissented. He stated that the requirement of exhaustion of administrative remedies may only be excused when only a legal question are involved in determining the validity of a policy. He claimed that there was a factual element to the situation in this case: the school district claimed that lunch and recess periods counted as instructional time for the autistic children. (The majority had rejected that claim because the decision to institute the policy did not come out of the IEP development process.)

Judge Clifton also stated that the majority's decision "could cripple the ability of school districts to create generally applicable policies." If the policy is consistent with most, but not all, autistic students IEPs, the stuents for whom the policy is improper have the normal administrative avenues to resolve their issues.

Finally, Judge Clifton stated that the majority decision interfered with the discretion that was given to District Judges in such cases and set out a bright line rule that completion of a complaint resolution procedure is sufficient to constitute exhaustion.

The decision and dissent in Christopher S. v. Stanislau County Office of Education can be found here.


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