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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal statute that protects the rights of students with disabilities by conferring onto them a substantive right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). Under the IDEA, aggrieved parents may demand a “due process hearing,” an administrative process presided over by an impartial hearing officer through which students and families may seek redress for violations of the IDEA. Due process hearings, however, allow only for certain types of relief—notably, money damages are not available under the IDEA. Students with disabilities are also protected under other statutes, including the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and § 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Parents may sue under these sister statutes but, in most cases, must first exhaust their administrative remedies by seeking a due process hearing pursuant to 20 USC § 1415(l).

This Comment addresses an unanswered question about § 1415(l) that the Supreme Court explicitly left unaddressed in its recent decision in Fry v Napoleon Community Schools: if a family alleges a denial of a FAPE—which Fry held triggered exhaustion—but sought relief that the IDEA could not provide, including money damages, is exhaustion required? With respect to this question, the lower courts are split.

By applying principles of statutory interpretation, examining the history of the IDEA, and considering the policy implications of exhaustion, this Comment argues that exhaustion should not be required in such a case. This conclusion is first rooted in the plain-language reading of the statute, a reading that is confirmed by comparing § 1415(l) to other federal statutes and to the ADA and § 504. Moreover, considering the kinds of cases in which this question would arise by applying the Fry standard reveals that waiving exhaustion in such a case creates appropriate deterrence for schools and school districts. Consistent with the core purpose of the IDEA, such a reading of the statute better vindicates the rights of students with disabilities.

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