Supreme Court nominee Gorsuch puts rights of students with disabilities at risk

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by Félix Pérez

With the Senate scheduled to vote next Friday on the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court, more and more senators are coming out in opposition in light of his troubling record on students with disabilities, workers’ rights and women’s rights, to name a few issues.

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Whether Gorsuch will meet the 60-vote standard in the Senate to become the ninth Supreme Court justice has Washington insiders aflutter. But to educators and parents of students with disabilities, Senate procedures have little significance. What worries them is the failure Gorsuch has shown through years of rulings to demonstrate sensitivity to and understanding of the legal rights of students entitled to protections and appropriate education services.

One particularly troubling finding in a review of his judicial record is that Gorsuch, a judge on 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, has ruled against students with disabilities in 8 out of 10 cases. He has also come under widespread criticism for a ruling in which wrote that the standard of education mandated by federal disability law was “merely more than minimis.” In arriving at his ruling in a case involving an autistic student, Gorsuch overturned the decisions of an independent hearing officer, an administrative law judge and a U.S. District Court.

At a senate committee hearing, the student’s father, Jeffrey Perkins, said, “Judge Gorsuch felt that an education for my son that was even one small step above insignificant was acceptable.” Perkins said Gorsuch relied on a “radically restrictive interpretation of law” that “clearly fails the common sense test.”

Cameron Hoxie, a special education teacher in Colorado for 25 years, agreed. Hoxie has a unique vantage point: his learning disability went undiagnosed until after he dropped out of high school.

Judge Gorsuch’s rulings tell us that students with disabilities should only expect an education that is slightly better than nothing. Gorsuch on the Supreme Court is bad for our students.

Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a stunning rebuke handed down last week, unanimously rejected Gorsuch’s narrow standard. “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts. “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

David Riggs offers an uncommon perspective when it comes to students with disabilities. Riggs, who works in Boulder, Colo., oversees special education compliance for his district, coaches new special education teachers and facilitates services for home-bound students with disabilities. “Neil Gorsuch has consistently ruled against students with disabilities,” said Riggs. “Court rulings such as those by Gorsuch really do have a trickle down effect in the classroom and get in the way of students receiving a free and appropriate education.” Riggs continued, “I’ve been in education for 20 years, and I’ve really seen the effect appropriate education services can have, especially in preventing students from dropping out.

“I told my senators to absolutely vote ‘no’ on Neil Gorsuch’s nomination to the Supreme Court because of his record on students with disabilities. Our students deserve better,” said Riggs.

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