Byline: Eric T. Berkman
Felicia S. Vasudevan decided to pursue a career in education law when she was an undergrad studying education policy. She cemented her interest after college when she participated in Teach for America.
Today, less than a decade into her legal career, the Quincy attorney has already made a significant impact on the education law landscape, convincing the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last spring to reject an interpretation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that would have expanded dramatically the definition of a "free appropriate public education" or FAPE that school districts must provide to students with special needs.
In C.D. v. Natick Public School District, the parents of a teenager with borderline intellectual functioning demanded reimbursement for three years of private special education costs they incurred after rejecting an individualized education plan offered by Natick that they claimed would deprive their child of a FAPE in the least restrictive environment.
According to the plaintiffs, Natick's plan, which allowed the student to take elective courses in regular education classrooms while taking other courses in a self-contained special education program as opposed to the parents' proposal to have her take all her courses in regular classrooms with the aid of two private tutors constituted a failure to provide an "appropriately ambitious" and "challenging" course of instruction that they claimed was required by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2017 decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Distrct RE-1.
But Vasudevan, as counsel for the Natick Public Schools, persuaded the 1st Circuit that even under Endrew F., the operative question was whether an IEP provides a meaningful educational benefit in light of the child's circumstances and that Natick's proposed IEP more than met that standard.
"[Arguing before the 1st Circuit] was terrifying but also very intellectually satisfying."
The ruling does create a split among circuits, and the plaintiffs have filed a cert petition with the Supreme Court. But Vasudevan thinks the 1st Circuit's approach is the sensible one.
"It clarifies that when we're thinking about what is the least restrictive environment for a student with disabilities, it's a balancing act between [academic and non-academic] educational benefits," she says.
Q. What was your initial reaction to this case when you first became involved?
A. My initial...