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A Few Words of Caution as the Supreme Court Considers Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools


Kevin Golembiewski


October 27, 2016

This term, the Supreme Court will consider Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools. Fry implicates a circuit split on the proper scope of the exhaustion requirement in 20 U.S.C. § 1415(l) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That section requires parents of students with disabilities to exhaust state administrative remedies “before the filing of a civil action . . . seeking relief that is also available under” the IDEA. Two different approaches to this requirement have emerged among the courts of appeals: an “injury-centered” approach and a “relief-centered” approach. Under the injury-centered approach, exhaustion is required when a child’s injuries are education-related. In contrast, the relief-centered approach demands exhaustion only if a parent seeks a form of relief that can be obtained under the IDEA. If the Supreme Court adopts the injury-centered approach in Fry, it should be cautious in its application of the approach. The Court’s application of the injury-centered approach could have important, unforeseen consequences for students with disabilities. The approach requires courts to consider what “educational” means under the IDEA—an analysis that bears on the scope of the IDEA’s substantive protections. And the Court has yet to provide guidance as to the definition of “educational.” Therefore, the Court’s application of the approach in Fry could have a significant impact on students’ access to special education services.