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The U.S. Supreme Court and Children With Special Needs: Part I Amy Rowley and Her Daughter Neva
Twenty-five years later, Hendrick Hudson Central School District Board of Education v. Rowley continues to hold a special place in American education history. It is one of eight IDEA-related cases to be decided by the nation’s highest court; a ninth, Winkelman v. Parma City School District, is scheduled to be decided this year. The Rowley ruling upheld a student’s right to a free and appropriate public education, even as it helped build an inherent tension between families and schools over how to best educate children with disabilities.
From Betsy Combier: Throughout America, children with special needs are not getting the support they need to succeed in public school. A favorite argument used by school districts is that the child can succeed without any accommodation, and pushy parents who want the Federal Government to spend limited taxpayer money must be stopped at all cost. And those costs are high. In some cases, school districts have spent 10-1000% more on lawyers' fees to deny parents their win in court than spend the amount originally requested for the child who needs the assistive technology or services. The US Supreme Court case Hendrick Hudson Central School District Board of Education v. Rowley was one of the precedent-setting cases decided by the US Supreme Court, and we invite you to read an update not only of Amy Rowley but of her daughter Neva, also born with impaired hearing:

by Naomi Dillon
ASBJ Special Report/December 2006

Even as she walks among her classmates, it is apparent that something is a little different about Neva. Walking single-file down the school’s hallway, the two dozen or so kindergarteners are alternately fidgety and distracted. The teacher even stops the procession to lecture a pair of young boys who’d apparently been acting up.

One can tell that Neva has as much energy as any other 5-year-old. But she is surprisingly focused and aware of her surroundings. No doubt that it’s a necessary and acquired skill for anyone who is hearing impaired. She turns around at one point, sensing -- rightly so -- that she is being observed.

By all accounts, Neva is just like her mother, Amy Rowley, was at her age: curious and bright, friendly and precocious. The next several years of elementary school, however, did not hold the same kind of promise for Amy as they do for Neva, who attends the Milwaukee Sign Language School.

A public school on the Wisconsin city’s outskirts, MSLS describes itself accurately as a bilingual learning environment. In the classrooms, hallways, really everywhere in the K-8 school, it’s not always obvious who can hear and who can’t. The deaf culture is an integral part of the school, even though it represents only 10 percent of MSLS’ 600 students.

In contrast, Amy Rowley was an anomaly in her upstate New York school. The Peekskill school where she spent her formative years in the late 1970s and early ’80s had never served a deaf child, even though officials were more than willing to meet the challenge presented by a new federal law now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

As history bears, the hope for a symbiotic relationship between family and school dissolved quickly, leading to a series of events probably neither side desired. Those events concluded, at least from a legal standpoint, with the U.S. Supreme Court’s first major interpretation of IDEA.

Twenty-five years later, Hendrick Hudson Central School District Board of Education v. Rowley continues to hold a special place in American education history. It is one of eight IDEA-related cases to be decided by the nation’s highest court; a ninth, Winkelman v. Parma City School District, is scheduled to be decided this year. The Rowley ruling upheld a student’s right to a free and appropriate public education, even as it helped build an inherent tension between families and schools over how to best educate children with disabilities.

The source of such contention is arguably found in the language of IDEA. The law is both vague and complex, creating confusion and varying interpretations. That duality, many argue, is both its shining glory and its Achilles heel.

“IDEA is purposefully vague,” says Richard Vacca, professor emeritus of education law at the Virginia Commonwealth University. “But because it’s vague it forces us to focus on each individual. Laws aren’t written for individuals but groups or classes.”

Still, that ambiguity is what forced Amy Rowley, nearly a quarter century after her parents’ battle, to jump through hoops for her daughter. She feels Neva is better served in a setting like MSLS, even though the school is on the other side of the city.

“It was important to me that my kid be a whole person,” Amy says. “I want her to have a social life ... I want her to be part of a group. I want her to be able to communicate with friends, deaf and hearing. She shouldn’t always have to be the one to reach out.”

If anyone should know what that feels like, it would be Amy.

Wading through murkiness

Depending on which perspective you take -- and this story, like all stories involving legal issues and the courts, is rooted in perspective -- Amy’s life is an example of how the system worked or of how one family prevailed in spite of it.

The parallels today between Amy’s family and her parents are striking. Amy’s parents -- Cliff, a retired chemist, and Nancy, a retired teacher -- are deaf, having lost their hearing in early childhood. Amy’s older brother, John, also a chemist, is the only hearing member in the family.

Amy began losing her hearing, too, when she was young. And of the three children she has with her husband, Jeff Mosher, who is also deaf, only her infant son, Tavey, appears not to be hearing impaired, although it is still too early to tell.

At 35, Amy heads the American Sign Language program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She’s also working on her doctorate in second language education, further belying the fact that her own entry into schooling was fraught with issues that largely revolved around the notion of mediocrity.

It was a situation Nancy vowed would not happen to Amy. Nancy had a horrible experience with public education, attending a local school that prohibited sign language, a common practice then that we know now can have devastating effects.

“Those three years in public education were awful for me. I didn’t learn enough,” Nancy says. “Even expert lip readers pick up about 30 percent or less of conversation. I didn’t want my daughter to experience that.”

But neither did she want Amy to go to the New York School for the Deaf, where Nancy taught for several years. The White Plains school was geared more for the average deaf student; Amy, who could already read a little before kindergarten, was far from average. The Rowleys decided that Furnace Woods Elementary, a newer school with an excellent reputation, was the best place for their daughter.

Before Amy entered kindergarten, the Rowleys made their request clear to Hendrick Hudson officials: They wanted a full-time sign language interpreter for Amy.

The district placed an interpreter in Amy’s class for a short period when she was in kindergarten. For how long is not exactly clear, but school officials gleaned from the experiment that Amy did not need the supplemental service at that time.

Each side contends they tried their best to accommodate the other. Charles Eible, who was Hendrick Hudson’s superintendent, says the school provided well-placed seating in the classroom, trained Amy’s teachers to use visual cues and props, and gave her devices to enhance the residual hearing she had left.

“We did a lot,” Eible says. “Sometimes not with the speed and full extent the Rowleys would prefer, but we did.”

To everyone in the school, Amy was doing just fine. But she missed much of the classroom discussion, and Nancy, who kept her daughter afloat by teaching her again after school, knew better.

Back and forth the parents and the school went, each side believing they knew what was best. It wasn’t long before the tenuous relationship they’d shared because of this young girl began to erode. As their daughter entered first grade in 1978, the Rowleys decided they had no choice but to employ their due process rights.

The 2nd U.S. District Court of New York and the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals both favored the Rowleys. In 1980, Amy, by then a third-grader, was granted a sign language interpreter. She enjoyed the services for two school years before the district’s appeal to the Supreme Court was accepted.

Attorney Raymond Kuntz, who represented Hendrick Hudson and continues to provide counsel to school districts on IDEA cases, says the family’s “intent was very clear.”

“The Rowleys were truly advocating a radical premise,” Kuntz says. “It wasn’t the elected principals and the people who were trained and directed to make those judgments, but the parent determining what was appropriate, which held the seeds of an expense that couldn’t be contained.”

So, with both sides seeing no other choice, they went forward to the nation’s highest court. But to understand what came next, one must go back.

What led up to the case

In terms of its significance, the Rowley case is considered by some to be second only to 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education, which declared that all children -- regardless of skin color -- deserved an equal education.

After Brown, many disability advocates assumed the ruling would help students with disabilities, who also were long-time victims of abuse and prejudice. But like those who fought for Brown, their cause required a string of lawsuits -- nearly 50 in the five years before President Ford signed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) into law in 1975.

The most notable pre-EAHCA lawsuits were the Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Pennsylvania and Mills v. District of Columbia Board of Education. The plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania case accused the state of excluding mentally retarded children; the Washington, D.C., plaintiffs said the system was barring disabled students from public schools. The judgments in both cases served as the foundation for the EAHCA, particularly the right to a free and appropriate education and the protection of due process.

“The history of special education is one of total neglect,” says Chris Borreca, a Houston-based attorney who specializes in education law. “You had a system in place where kids were denied access continually, so Congress said we’re going to put a law in place that will stop that.”

Just as in Brown and the Civil Rights Act, the concept of equality for all was not immediately embraced. Some school districts even outright rejected it.

“A lot of people forget at this juncture in time, there were a number of states … [that] said they were not going to sign onto the [EAHCA], not take funding, and not be required to implement the regulations simply because they felt they didn’t have the wherewithal, the structure, or the competence to do it,” Kuntz says. “That’s all changed, but back then there were all these issues around.”

More questions than answers

Indeed, though the conflict in the Rowley case may have seemed simple -- the Rowleys wanted a sign language interpreter and the school district did not feel one was necessary at the time -- the lawsuit represented a multitude of issues and ideologies that encompassed more than just the parties involved.

To start, the case was a curious one because it was not representative of the majority of children with disabilities. Amy was deaf, which constitutes little more than 1 percent of all special needs students. Her family was well-to-do and well versed in their rights. What’s more, Hendrick Hudson appeared to be responsive and responsible.

Added to this was a feisty, roiling pedagogical debate on the most effective way to teach deaf children. Some adopted a strictly oralist approach, while others advocated the use of sign language. In between were people like the Rowleys, who believed in the “total communications” model, which in essence is the practice of employing all communication methods to facilitate conversation.

More important, however, there was an attitude among the American public and educators that opening the door to public schools was one thing, but providing free access to specialized services was another all together. Not everyone was sure about this completely foreign concept, including the courts, which had the task of deciphering what constitutes a free and appropriate education.

It’s interesting to note how much the Supreme Court’s interpretation of this new guarantee differs from the lower court rulings. The district court’s opinion, upon which the appellate court largely modeled its own majority decision, felt that an appropriate education wasn’t one that allowed a student “to merely progress from grade to grade” but one that provided the child “an opportunity to achieve his full potential commensurate with the opportunity provided other children.”

On June 29, 1982, the Supreme Court’s findings couldn’t have been more polar opposite. In a 6-3 decision that raised more questions than answers, the court ruled that Congress did not intend for states to “achieve strict equality of opportunity or services for handicapped and nonhandicapped children.” To be in compliance, the court said, districts must only provide an education that was meaningful and tailored specifically to the child’s needs.

The decision has been interpreted in different ways. “It was probably viewed as a negative, as the courts putting the brakes on this rapid and confusing world of special education,” says Vacca, the law professor. “The positive is it made us look at each kid in delivering an appropriate education.”

For the Rowleys, however, the verdict was clear.

Moving on

Four years had passed since the Rowleys filed their first grievance under the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The ruling was a setback for the family.

“We were in a state of shock,” Cliff Rowley says of the family’s reaction. “I was ready one way or another, but I was still sort of depressed.”

It had been a tough journey. Not everyone in the snug little suburb they lived in understood or agreed with the Rowleys. Amy’s older brother, John, absorbed all of the auditory ugliness the legal dispute elicited.

“It was a painful experience,” John says. “I got harassed all the time. There was no compassion for me or my family.”

Amy began fifth grade in the fall of 1982 without a sign language interpreter. Her grades began to slip, a consequence more than a few suggested Nancy Rowley should have let happen.

“Some people said if she’d never taught me and let me drop back and fail I might’ve had an interpreter,” Amy says. “But as a mother and a teacher, do you think she’d let me fail?”

A year after the court decision, with more procedural hearings scheduled and no promise of an interpreter, Nancy and Clifford Rowley called it quits for the sake of the family and moved to New Jersey. Though it was less than an hour away, they discovered a world of difference in Mountain Lakes.

“All our neighbors were thrilled to have us in their community,” Nancy says. “Our church offered us interpreters every Sunday. It was easy.”

Most important, Amy and John went to a top school that was already familiar with serving deaf students. Amy quickly received an interpreter and she excelled to the top 20 percent of her class. She made friends -- deaf and hearing -- and experienced, for the first time, gossip.

Eible, the former superintendent, says it was not the intent of Hendrick Hudson officials to drive the Rowleys away. “The thing, I guess, that sticks in my mind as a superintendent and educator, is we were doing everything we thought was in the best interest of Amy,” Eible says. “It was never a question of, ‘She’s deaf. This is automatically her program.’

“Our philosophy,” he continues, “was always the same: to provide to the extent we could the most appropriate education. We did that before Amy Rowley and we did that after Amy Rowley.”

Still, how could two school districts, so close in proximity, deliver such vastly different educational environments? “The difference?” Cliff Rowley asks, pondering the question. “Attitude.”

Then and now

In March, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Rowley Supreme Court case by presenting a national conference that will explore the decision and its impact. Speakers include R.C. Smith, author of the 1996 book A Case About Amy, legal experts, and members of the Rowley family.

The chance to play host to such an event is almost as exciting for Amy’s colleagues as the day she joined the faculty. “For someone who’s worked in school law, she’s a big star,” says John LaNear, an assistant professor at the university.

For John Rowley, the conference will mark the first time he has spoken in public about the case and its impact on his life. “I had to grow up a lot faster than anticipated. I was the odd man out, in school and at home,” John says. “A lot of it had to do with lack of education of the deaf culture. They didn’t know what it was. But deaf people are just like other people.”

As for Amy, she is unfazed by her role in education history, going about her day and her life as though she’d never been a part of changing it. “I never really talk about it,” she says. “I’m not the type of person to boast.”

But others still discuss and debate its importance. “Rowley still guides the field many times,” says Alexa Posny, director of the Office of Special Education Programs for the U.S. Department of Education. “It upheld FAPE (free appropriate public education), and there isn’t any other country in the world that offers FAPE.”

Since the case, Posny says, educators no longer simply provide access to school. Now they strive to provide access to the best education to all children, an effort she believes is bolstered by the No Child Left Behind Act. “The primary difference is how we go about doing it, but our outcomes are the same,” she says.

Elise Frattura, interim associate dean for education outreach at the University of Wisconsin’s Milwaukee campus, disagrees. “I think there are some conflicting semantics in the Rowley case and NCLB,” Frattura says. “What’s school choice premised on? That parents know best? At some point, someone is going to file a major lawsuit.”

No matter how many times legislators tinker with it, IDEA has fundamental problems that won’t go away, Frattura says. The problem with special education, she believes, is special education itself.

“When we send kids away to specialized programs we tell those kids they are different and we can’t accommodate them,” says Frattura, who worked at several school districts as a special education director before entering academia. “School systems will argue with me on this and say, ‘We can’t meet the needs of every learner.’ And I say we did, I did in a school district. We didn’t make any money, but we didn’t lose any either.”

Money was never talked about much in the Rowley case, with the district contending its argument was based on principle. But it’s fair to say that when all was said and done, both sides paid a high price. Was it worth it? Would they trace the same path today?

Without hesitation, Eible and Kuntz and Nancy and Clifford Rowley say yes. But from the person at the center of the dispute, the answer is more subdued. “My parents always felt the case was very powerful,” Amy says. “I’d never do that myself. I would just move. If I stay and fight, how would that help?”

It’s an interesting statement, considering her parents’ ordeal. She points to a profession she once thought of joining to clarify her thinking. “Say, I contact a doctor to make an appointment and I ask if they provide an interpreter and they say, ‘No,’” Amy says.

She could push for the service, and her claims would be reinforced by the Americans with Disabilities Act. But while her efforts might earn her a place in the doctor’s office, it might also engender ill will and the sneaking suspicion that this individual isn’t looking out for her best interests.
“It’s the same thing for my children,” Amy says. “I want someone who wants to teach my children.”
Naomi Dillon ( is a senior editor of American School Board Journal.

April 1977
Clifford and Nancy Rowley file a complaint with the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s Civil Rights Division, citing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, after attempts to secure a sigh language interpreter for their daughter, Amy, who will enter kindergarten in the fall of 1977, is unsuccessful. Regulations for the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act would not appear until later this year.

May 1978
The office concludes Hendrick Hudson Central School District is in compliance with the 1973 statute.

December 1978
An impartial hearing is held to determine whether the school district is fulfilling its obligations under the EAHCA. A month later the hearing examiner finds for the school district and the Rowleys appeal to the New York State Commissioner of Education.

April 1979
The state commissioner denies the appeal.

September-December 1979
The 2nd U.S. District Court of New York holds hearings on the Rowley case and the judge determines Hendrick Hudson is not providing an appropriate education for Amy and orders the district to grant her an interpreter. School district officials appeal.

July 1980
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the district court’s ruling.

November 1981
Hendrick Hudson’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is accepted.

March 1982
The nine court justices hear oral arguments.

June 1982
The Supreme Court rules 6-3 that Amy was receiving an appropriate education, reversing the lower courts’ findings.

Source: A Case About Amy, R.C. Smith, 1996.

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© 2003 The E-Accountability Foundation