Starting in 1990, we represented the family of Rafael Oberti, a student with Down Syndrome, in their efforts to get Rafael placed in a regular classroom with necessary supports.
Even before kindergarten, officials in Rafael’s district recommended placing him in a segregated classroom – in a different district over an hour from his home. After initial objections, Rafael’s parents reached a compromise with the school, allowing limited amounts of inclusion. Unfortunately, without adequate supports, the efforts to include Rafael failed.
The district again recommended a segregated placement outside the district, and the Obertis again objected – this time filing a request for a due process hearing. The parents reached an agreement with the district, accepting their recommended placement in return for a promise to explore ways to include Rafael in the regular classroom. However, Rafael’s parents quickly found that the district was making no effort to move Rafael out of his segregated classroom, and that Rafael had no contact with nondisabled students during the school day.
In January of 1991, the Obertis brought another due process complaint asking that Rafael be placed in a regular class in his neighborhood elementary school.
In the hearing, the Administrative Law Judge sided with the district and concluded that the segregated special education class was the “least restrictive environment” possible for Rafael. Rafael, the judge concluded, was not ready, despite the testimony of the Obertis’ two expert witnesses.
Determined to get Rafael into a regular classroom, where he would learn social skills he couldn’t get in his segregated classroom, the Obertis appealed the decision to the U.S. District Court for New Jersey. The court held trial in 1992, hearing new evidence from leading special education experts. The Obertis’ experts testified that with properly trained teachers and other resources, Rafael could be integrated – and in fact would greatly benefit from placement in the regular classroom.
The court sided with the Obertis and their experts, finding that the district had not demonstrated that Rafael could not be included in a regular classroom if necessary aids and services were provided. The court therefore concluded that the School District had violated IDEA.
The case was then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which in 1993 issued a precedent-setting ruling upholding the District Court ruling.
The Third Circuit’s opinion stated that schools “must consider the whole range of supplemental aids and services” before segregating a student with a disability from the regular-education classroom, and that they must “make efforts to modify the regular education program” to make the curriculum accessible. The aids and services that the district must consider include “speech and language therapy, special education training for the regular teacher, [and] behavior modification programs,” but the opinion does not limit the obligation, stating that the district must consider “any other available aids and services appropriate.”
The opinion set a high standard for districts to justify segregating students with disabilities (widely known as ‘the Oberti test’), and the case opened the door for countless families to seek and win help through the law.
As important as it was, the decision’s impact was inherently limited. Many families lack the resources to go through an often arduous and expense litigation process, and even those who win in courts face additional problems of untrained teachers and inadequate supports and services. These hurdles subsequently led to the Gaskin case. [LINK]