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How to Find Legal Information in Special Education

The ERIC Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education (ERIC EC)
E-mail: webmaster@hoagiesgifted.org
Internet: http://eric.hoagiesgifted.org
ERIC EC Digest #E651
Author: Bernadette Knoblauch
December 2003

Everyone involved in special education—school administrators, classroom teachers, other special education professionals, psychologists, parents, and attorneys—needs to be familiar with the legal requirements and responsibilities for educating children with disabilities and the liabilities if those responsibilities are not fulfilled.

Numerous statutes and regulations affect special education. Of primary interest are the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (P.L. 105-17), state education laws, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (P.L. 93-112), and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) (P.L. 101-336). Also of interest are various court cases that affect the education of students who need special education services.

This digest is a general guide to finding and using legal information. Legal information includes the laws themselves as well as sources that describe and explain the law, such as legal journals and law reviews.

Statutes, Regulations, and Decisions

Congress and the state legislatures write statutes (laws) that mandate the provision of special education. These laws are implemented through regulations or guidelines issued by agencies such as the federal and state Departments of Education. Laws and regulations are interpreted by the courts, which apply the principles of the law to settle disputes. Although the courts do not write laws, their decisions may result in judicially created principles known as case law.

How Federal Laws Are Named

In finding legal information, it is helpful to understand the naming conventions for laws. When legislation is passed by the Congress and signed into law by the President, it is assigned a number. For example, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997 are assigned the number P.L. 105-17. The "P.L." stands for Public Law, the "105" indicates the session of Congress during which the law was passed, and the "17" indicates that it was the 17th law enacted during that session. So, P.L. 105-17 represents the 17th law that Congress passed and the President signed during the 105th session of Congress.

Limited copies of new laws become available to officials and the public through Congress or from the US Government Printing Office. To obtain a copy of the law, you may contact your congressional representative or senator. You may also purchase a copy from the Superintendent of Documents at the Government Printing Office. However, the full text of the law can be found through other sources, including the United States Code (USC).

The US Code contains a consolidation of the laws of the United States arranged according to subject matter. In the US Code, P.L. 105-17 (IDEA) is cited as 20 USC 1401 (30). The "20" is the title number. Title 20 contains education statutes. The letters following the title number (USC) refer to the United States Code. The "1401" is the section number ( is the symbol for section) referring to "Definitions." In the USC, the text of the IDEA begins at 1400 and ends at 1485. The "(30)" refers to a subsection on transition services.

Federal regulations, the guidelines for implementing the law, also follow certain naming conventions. Regulations are developed by the Executive agency responsible for implementing the law, in this case, the U.S. Department of Education. They are published by the US Government Printing Office in the Federal Register and the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). P.L. 105-17 is cited as 34 CFR 300 (sections 300.1-300.756 cover the IDEA regulations). So, for example, in 34 CFR 300.504 (a)(1), the "34" is the title number, denoting the subject (education). "CFR" stands for the Code of Federal Regulations. " 300.504" refers to the section on procedural safeguards notice and the "(a)(1)" refers to a subsection of general information indicating that "a copy of the procedural safeguards available to the parents of a child with a disability must be given to the parents, at a minimum— (1) Upon initial referral for evaluation."

Federal laws are often amended, and the name of a law may be changed in the amendment process as well. For example, P.L. 105-17, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, is the most recent version of special education legislation that was enacted in 1975. Through amendments, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 eventually became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which has also been amended several times. So it is important to locate the most recent version of the law.

How to Find Court Cases

Descriptions of court cases are published in volumes according to the level of court (supreme, appellate, or district) at which the case was decided (for federal courts) or by geographical regions and levels of courts (for state courts). These volumes, called reporters, are available at all law libraries.

Cases are referenced to the Federal Reporter or the Federal Supplement, both published by the West Publishing Company. For example, Oberti v. Clementon 995 F.2nd 1204 (3rd Cir. 1993) would be found in the Federal Reporter, Second Series (F.2nd), volume 995, page 1204. The case was decided by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 1993. The case of Doe v. Arlington County, 41 F.Supp. 599 (ED.Va. 1999) is reported in the Federal Supplement, volume 41, page 599. The case was decided by a district court in Virginia in 1999 (Rothstein, 1995).

Courts of appeals (appellate courts) almost always publish their decisions. The decisions of the highest appellate court, the U.S. Supreme Court, can be found in the United States Reports. For example, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 349 U.S. 294 (1955), indicates that the case, decided in 1955, is reported in volume 349 of the United States Reports on page 294. Since Supreme Court cases are reported in several publications, the same case may be followed by the notations 75 S. Ct. 753, 99 L. Ed 1083. This means that the same case also appears in volume 75 of the Supreme Court Reporter on page 753 and in volume 99 of the Lawyers Edition on page 1083. The most recent cases decided by the Supreme Court appear in a loose-leaf volume called United States Law Week, cited, for example, as Irving Independent School District v. Tatro, 52 U.S. L.W. 5151 (July 5, 1984).

The National Reporter System of the West Publishing Company, in addition to reporting the federal cases noted above, also reports cases from state courts. Most reported state appellate court decisions appear in the following volumes: Atlantic Reporter (A.), North Eastern Reporter (N.E.), North Western Reporter (N.W.), Pacific Reporter (P.), South Eastern Reporter (S.E.), South Western Reporter (S.W.), or Southern Reporter (So.). Cases from New York, including some trial court decisions, are available in West's New York Supplement (N.Y.S.); cases from California are contained in the California Reporter (Ca. Rptr.). Many of these same cases also appear in respective regional reporters—the North Eastern Reporter and the Pacific Reporter.

In addition to reading cases, counselors and educators interested in a particular topic might go to one of the standard legal encyclopedias to gain an overview of the topic. The best known of these encyclopedias are Corpus Juris Secundum (C.J.S.) and American Jurisprudence 2d (Am. Jur 2d). School administrators, classroom teachers, psychologists, social workers, parents, attorneys, other special education professionals-anyone who wants to know more about legal research-may consult with a law librarian, and/or read one of the standard guides on the subject, for example, Jacobstein and Merskey, Fundamentals of Legal Research (5th ed. 1990).

Where to Find Legal Resources

Legal information can be found at law libraries, law schools, county bar associations, publishers of legal information, or online via the Internet.

Every county has a courthouse with a law library, and many areas have a bar association. Every law school has a library, and most colleges and universities have legal collections. In each of these places a librarian can help you find cases of interest. For state law, contact your state director of special education: http://www.nasdse.org/state_directors_of_special_educa.htm

Perhaps the most convenient way to find legal information is through the Internet. Sites such as The Law and Special Education at the University of South Carolina (www.ed.sc.edu/spedlaw/lawpage.htm) provide updates regarding legal developments in special education and include links to the laws, United States Code, decisions from the US Courts of Appeals, Supreme Court Decisions, other search engines, Thomas Legislative Information (from the Library of Congress), plus other sources of material that address legal aspects of special education. Other sites offer articles, cases, newsletters, products, seminars, and other resources about special education law and advocacy for children with disabilities.


To learn about the law, study the statutes, regulations, and case law. If you have a question about a legal issue, read the statute about the issue, read the regulation that discusses the issue, then re-read both the statute and the regulation. Next review the cases that interpreted the issue, reading the earlier interpretations first. If the case was appealed, read the decision that was appealed and reversed, or appealed and affirmed. When you read the earlier law, you can see how the law has evolved.

As you read the statute and the regulations, you will develop your own interpretation of the law and the impact it is likely to have on you.


Individuals with Disabilities Education Law Report (IDELR), LRP Publications, Horsham, PA.

Rothstein, L. F. (1995). Special education law (2nd ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman Publishers.

Special Education Report, Capitol Publications Inc., PO Box 1453, Alexandria, VA 22313-2053.

The Special Educator (TSE), LRP Publications, Horsham, PA.

West's Education Law Reporter, West Publishing Co., 610 Opperman Drive, PO Box 64526, St. Paul, MN 55164-0526.

Wright, Peter W. D. and Wright, Pamela Darr. (2002). Wrightslaw: Special Education Law. Harbor House Law Press, Hartfield, VA.

Yell, Mitchell L. (1998). The law and special education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall. Also see http://www.ed.sc.edu/spedlaw/lawpage.htm

The following Internet sites offer articles, cases, newsletters, and resources about special education law and advocacy for children with disabilities.

Edlaw, http://www.edlaw.org

SpecialEdLaw, http://www.specialedlaw.net/index.mv

Special Education Law & Advocacy Strategies, http://www.reedmartin.com

Wrightslaw, http://www.wrightslaw.com/  articles, cases, newsletters, and resources about special education law and advocacy for children with disabilities.

ERIC Digests are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and disseminated, but please acknowledge your source. This digest was prepared with funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), U.S. Department of Education, under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0026. The opinions expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of IES or the Department of Education.

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