PUBLISHED:May 12, 2020

Children’s Law Clinic files Supreme Court amicus brief on behalf of highly mobile and vulnerable students


The brief urges the Supreme Court to grant certiorari in a case involving the “comparable services” provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The Children’s Law Clinic filed an amicus brief on April 17 on behalf of special education advocacy groups urging the Supreme Court to grant certiorari in Bruno v. Northside Independent School District, a case involving the “comparable services” provision of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Tom Yu ’20 and Zack Kaplan ’21 drafted the brief under the supervision of William B. McGuire Clinical Professor of Law Jane Wettach, the clinic’s founding director, and Supervising Attorney Peggy Nicholson. Several national and state-based organizations that advocate for children with disabilities signed on to the brief that supports petitioner R.B., a child with autism, whose family moved from Florida to Texas due to his father’s military relocation in the middle of the school year. 

When R.B. enrolled at his new school in Texas, that school’s special education team reduced his instructional time from the full school day he received in Florida to a half day. Noting a severe regression in his progress in school, R.B.’s family brought a claim against the school district asserting, in part, that the significant reduction in his instructional time violated the IDEA’s “comparable services” provision designed to ensure continuity in a student’s special education services during a transition between schools. That provision requires a school receiving a new student mid-year to provide special education services that are comparable to those the student received previously, until the school can conduct an assessment and create a new special education plan. 

The Special Education Hearing Officer who heard R.B.’s case ruled in favor of the school district, a decision subsequently affirmed by the District Court and Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. R.B.’s family is petitioning the United States Supreme Court to grant certiorari to review the case.

The clinic’s brief argues that current interpretation and enforcement of the comparable services provision is inconsistent between courts and often strays from its statutory purpose, resulting in potentially severe harm to students with disabilities who rely on it for the continuity of their special education services during a move to a new school district.

“The standard affirmed by the 5th Circuit here fails to hold school districts accountable for providing adequate special education services to students during a transition between schools,” said Kaplan. “If a half-day of instruction is sufficiently similar to a full day to be deemed compliant with the IDEA’s guarantee of comparable services, then what services are not comparable?”

Said Yu: “The court’s deviation from the statutory purpose of comparable services here does the most harm to the students who are already the most vulnerable: students whose families frequently move as a result of military relocation, poverty, or homelessness. It is difficult to imagine a group of people more deserving and in need of the law’s protection during an already difficult transition.”

Apart from the critical legal issue at stake in the case that connects directly with the clinic’s main work of protecting and enforcing children’s rights, Kaplan said the collaborative process involved in crafting the brief to the high court offered lasting lessons. “We were each writing different sections that needed to meld together into a broader and important message. That skill of drafting a brief with other people was really useful. And it taught me the importance of taking a step back from the specific facts of this litigation and this student in particular, to consider the broader context and broader impact of the matter.”