Honig v. Doe

Decision Date20 January 1988
Docket NumberNo. 86-728,86-728
PartiesBill HONIG, California Superintendent of Public Instruction, Petitioner v. John DOE and Jack Smith
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

In order to assure that States receiving federal financial assistance will provide a "free appropriate public education" for all disabled children, including those with serious emotional disturbances, the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA or Act) establishes a comprehensive system of procedural safeguards designed to provide meaningful parental participation in all aspects of a child's educational placement, including an opportunity for an impartial due process hearing with respect to any complaints such parents have concerning their child's placement, and the right to seek administrative review of any decisions they think inappropriate. If that review proves unsatisfactory, either the parents or the local educational agency may file a civil action in any state or federal court for "appropriate" relief. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2). The Act's "stay-put" provision directs that a disabled child "shall remain in [his or her] then current educational placement" pending completion of any review proceedings, unless the parents and state or local educational agencies otherwise agree. § 1415(e)(3). Respondents Doe and Smith, who were emotionally disturbed students, were suspended indefinitely for violent and disruptive conduct related to their disabilities, pending the completion of expulsion proceedings by the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD). After unsuccessfully protesting the action against him, Doe filed a suit in Federal District Court, in which Smith intervened, alleging that the suspension and proposed expulsion violated the EHA, and seeking injunctive relief against SFUSD officials and petitioner, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. The court entered summary judgment for respondents on their EHA claims and issued a permanent injunction. The Court of Appeals affirmed with slight modifications.


1. The case is moot as to respondent Doe, who is now 24 years old, since the Act limits eligibility to disabled children between the ages of 3 and 21. However, the case is justiciable with respect to respondent Smith, who continues to be eligible for EHA educational services since he is currently only 20 and has not yet completed high school. This Court has jurisdiction since there is a reasonable likelihood that Smith will again suffer the deprivation of EHA-mandated rights that gave rise to this suit. Given the evidence that he is unable to conform his conduct to socially acceptable norms, and the absence of any suggestion that he has overcome his behavioral problems, it is reasonable to expect that he will again engage in aggressive and disruptive classroom misconduct. Moreover, it is unreasonable to suppose that any future educational placement will so perfectly suit his emotional and academic needs that further disruptions on his part are improbable. If Smith does repeat the objectionable conduct, it is likely that he will again be subjected to the same type of unilateral school action in any California school district in which he is enrolled, in light of the lack of a statewide policy governing local school responses to disability-related misconduct, and petitioner's insistence that all local school districts retain residual authority to exclude disabled children for dangerous conduct. In light of the ponderousness of review procedures under the Act, and the fact that an aggrieved student will often be finished with school or otherwise ineligible for EHA protections by the time review can be had in this Court, the conduct Smith complained of is "capable of repetition, yet evading review." Thus his EHA claims are not moot. Pp. 317-323.

2. The "stay-put" provision prohibits state or local school authorities from unilaterally excluding disabled children from the classroom for dangerous or disruptive conduct growing out of their disabilities during the pendency of review proceedings. Section 1415(e)(3) is unequivocal in its mandate that "the child shall remain in the then current educational placement" (emphasis added), and demonstrates a congressional intent to strip schools of the unilateral authority they had traditionally employed to exclude disabled students, particularly emotionally disturbed students, from school. This Court will not rewrite the statute to infer a "dangerousness" exception on the basis of obviousness or congressional inadvertence, since, in drafting the statute, Congress devoted close attention to Mills v. Board of Education of District of Columbia, 348 F.Supp. 866, and Pennsylvania Assn. for Retarded Children v. Pennsylvania, 334 F.Supp. 1257, and 343 F.Supp. 279, thereby establishing that the omission of an emergency exception for dangerous students was intentional. However, Congress did not leave school administrators powerless to deal with such students, since implementing regulations allow the use of normal, nonplacement-changing procedures, including temporary suspensions for up to 10 schooldays for students posing an immediate threat to others' safety, while the Act allows for interim placements where parents and school officials are able to agree, and author- izes officials to file a § 1415(e)(2) suit for "appropriate" injunctive relief where such an agreement cannot be reached. In such a suit, § 1415(e)(3) effectively creates a presumption in favor of the child's current educational placement which school officials can rebut only by showing that maintaining the current placement is substantially likely to result in injury to the student or to others. Here, the District Court properly balanced respondents' interests under the Act against the state and local school officials' safety interest, and both lower courts properly construed and applied § 1415(e)(3), except insofar as the Court of Appeals held that a suspension exceeding 10 schooldays does not constitute a prohibited change in placement. The Court of Appeals' judgment is modified to that extent. Pp. 323-328.

3. Insofar as the Court of Appeals' judgment affirmed the District Court's order directing the State to provide services directly to a disabled child where the local agency has failed to do so, that judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court. P. 328—329.

793 F.2d 1470 (CA9, 1986) affirmed.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court as to holdings number 1 and 2 above, in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. REHNQUIST, C.J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. ----. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which O'CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. ----.

Asher Rubin, San Francisco, Cal., for petitioner.

Glen D. Nager, Washington, D.C., for U.S. as amicus curiae, pro hac vice, supporting the petitioner, by special leave of Court.

Sheila L. Brogna, Legal Services for Children, Inc., San Francisco, Cal., for respondents; Toby F. Rubin, William J. Taylor, Brobeck, Phleger & Harrison, San Francisco, on brief.

Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

As a condition of federal financial assistance, the Education of the Handicapped Act requires States to ensure a "free appropriate public education" for all disabled children within their jurisdictions. In aid of this goal, the Act establishes a comprehensive system of procedural safeguards designed to ensure parental participation in decisions concerning the education of their disabled children and to provide administrative and judicial review of any decisions with which those parents disagree. Among these safeguards is the so-called "stay-put" provision, which directs that a disabled child "shall remain in [his or her] then current educational placement" pending completion of any review proceedings, unless the parents and state or local educational agencies otherwise agree. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(3). Today we must decide whether, in the face of this statutory proscription, state or local school authorities may nevertheless unilaterally exclude disabled children from the classroom for dangerous or disruptive conduct growing out of their disabilities. In addition, we are called upon to decide whether a district court may, in the exercise of its equitable powers, order a State to provide educational services directly to a disabled child when the local agency fails to do so.


In the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA or the Act), 84 Stat. 175, as amended, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., Congress sought "to assure that all handicapped children have available to them . . . a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs, [and] to assure that the rights of handicapped children and their parents or guardians are protected." § 1400(c). When the law was passed in 1975, Congress had before it ample evidence that such legislative assurances were sorely needed: 21 years after this Court declared education to be "perhaps the most important function of state and local governments," Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483, 493, 74 S.Ct. 686, 691, 98 L.Ed. 873 (1954), congressional studies revealed that better than half of the Nation's 8 million disabled children were not receiving appropriate educational services. § 1400(b)(3). Indeed, one out of every eight of these children was excluded from the public school system altogether, § 1400(b)(4); many others were simply "warehoused" in special classes or were neglectfully shepherded through the system until they were old enough to drop out. See H.R.Rep. No. 94-332, p. 2 (1975). Among the most poorly served of disabled students were emotionally disturbed children: Congressional statistics revealed that for the school year immediately preceding passage of the Act, the educational needs of 82 percent of all children with emotional disabilities went unmet. See S.Rep. No....

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