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International Dyslexia Association:
Three Generations of Dyslexia at the U. S. Supreme Court
by Peter W. D. Wright, Esq.

The case of Florence County School District Four v. Shannon Carter was set in motion by four distinguished members of The Orton Dyslexia Association - Helene Dubrow, Diana Hanbury King, Roger Saunders, and Linda Summer.

Diana Hanbury King, Roger Saunders, Helene Dubrow

In 1953, Orton member, Diana Hanbury King tutored a severely dysgraphic, dyslexic and hyperkinetic youngster, Pete Wright. During the next summer, that eight year old boy attended Helene Dubrow’s camp at the base of Mt. Mansfield, Vermont where he continued to receive intensive Orton-Gillingham remediation from his tutor and counselor, Roger Saunders, another Orton member. 

Remediation with Diana King continued through the next academic year. Later, Diana King founded the famous Orton-Gillingham based Kildonan School which is located in Amenia, New York. Dr. Roger Saunders founded the Jemicy School in Maryland and become one of the most prominent psychologists in the field of dyslexia. 

Linda Summer

Thirty years later, in 1985, another Orton member, Linda Summer began working with Shannon Carter, a severely depressed fifteen year old. Shannon had been misdiagnosed by the school system as a "slow learner," who was "lazy and unmotivated." Despite an above average IQ, Shannon was functionally illiterate. 

Linda Summer discovered and diagnosed Shannon’s dyslexia. She insisted that Shannon needed a self-contained classroom to remediate her disabilities. The public school refused to provide this and proposed to give Shannon three hours a week of special education. Her parents refused this. 

Emory, Elaine and Shannon Carter

As members of the Orton Dyslexia Society, Mr. and Mrs. Carter attended state and regional conferences and learned about the Orton-Gillingham Approach. They attended a day long training by this author, Pete Wright, and learned about their rights under the federal special education law. They sought a more intensive program for Shannon and the school refused to provide this, in part because no such program was available in School District Four.

When the school refused to provide an appropriate education for Shannon, the parents placed her into Trident Academy, an Orton-Gillingham based program. They filed a request for a special education due process hearing, seeking reimbursement for the cost of the tuition.

They lost at the due process and review hearing levels and then filed suit in the U. S. District Court.

In its ruling, the District Court wrote:

"Trial was had before the court without a jury on July 13, 1988, and July 14, 1988, and again on May 9, 1989."
. . .
"[Florence County's] reading goal specified four months of progress during the year, from a 5.4 level to a 5.8 level."
. . .
"The IEP prepared on May 1, 1985, did not provide Shannon with a free appropriate public education as required by the EHA. Even if all of the goals of the document had been met, Shannon would continue to fall behind her classmates at an alarming rate. The stated progress of only four months in her reading and math skills over an entire school year ensured the program's inadequacy from its inception. The mathematics goal was similarly one for four months progress, from a 6.4 level to a 6.8 level. In light of the expert testimony of Ms. Mitchell, Dr. Grant and Dr. Ward, it is clear that these goals were wholly inadequate."
. . .
"In light of conflicting testimony as to the appropriateness of Trident, the court's appointed expert, Dr. Richard Nagle, tested Shannon in the spring of 1988. His tests revealed that Shannon made significant progress at Trident. Her reading comprehension had risen from a level of 4.7 in 1985 to 7.8 in 1988."

On July, 1991, the District Court ruled in their favor! (Read the decision here.)

U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

The school district then appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

The Carters and their attorney, David Burlington, asked Pete Wright, a Richmond, Virginia attorney, to assist with the defense against the school district's appeal. Eventually Pete, who had handled prior Fourth Circuit special education cases, became the lead attorney for Shannon and argued the case at the Fourth Circuit.

On appeal to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the school system changed tactics. They argued that Trident Academy was not a certified approved school. Dr. Lucia Karnes, a member of the Orton Dyslexia Society, helped set up Trident Academy.

The public school argued that because Trident was not an "approved" school, the parents should not be reimbursed, even though the private school provided Shannon with an appropriate education

The Fourth Circuit did not agree and upheld the trial court's decision.

In making the argument, Florence County School District Four followed the rationale and the rule of law that existed in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Tucker v. Bayshore Sch. Dist.

In Tucker, the Second Circuit and the District Court trial judge found that [Diana Hanbury King's] Kildonan School provided a youngster with an excellent education and that there was not an appropriate education available either within the public school or on the state's list of approved schools. Because of an earlier Second Circuit case, the trial judge expressed concerns that he could not rule in favor of the child. The judge said that although the parents obtained an appropriate education for their son, it was not free.

On November 26, 1991, in Carter, the Fourth Circuit took a different position. If the school system defaults on its legal duty to provide the child with an appropriate education and if the parents obtain an appropriate special education for their child, then the child's education should be free -- regardless of whether the school was on an "approved list." (South Carolina did not have any pre-existing approved list.)

Split Among Circuits

Because of the "split" between the Second Circuit and Fourth Circuit, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and agreed to hear the Carter case. School officials hoped that a favorable decision in Carter would reduce the costs of special education.

On October 6, 1993, Pete Wright argued Shannon’s case before the U. S. Supreme Court. Three generations of Orton Dyslexia Society (now known as the International Dyslexia Association) members were present during oral argument. While Pete argued Shannon’s case, Roger Saunders and Shannon Carter watched from the audience.

On November 9, 1993, thirty-four days later, the Court issued a unanimous decision on behalf of Shannon Carter and affirmed the decision of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals

U. S. Supreme Court: Parents Can Be Reimbursed When Schools Fail to Provide FAPE

The U. S. Supreme Court did not agree with the school district's arguments. They gave short shrift to the "financial catastrophe" arguments raised by the seventeen states and dozens of educational organizations that filed briefs against Shannon. Legal scholars were surprised at the speed with which the Court reached its decision.

Carter was considered a stunning victory for parents of handicapped children. 

The Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that Trident Academy provided Shannon with an excellent education and that the public school program was "woefully inadequate." 

Children with handicaps are entitled to a continuum of educational alternatives, including self-contained and residential programs. Schools that provide fixed rigid programs directed by staffing convenience are ill-advised to draw lines in the sand, provide inadequate programs, then suggest that parents "take it or leave it."

Parents may reject the school's proposal, secure an education privately, then present the school with the bill and collect in the end.

This was the outcome in Florence County School District Four v. Shannon Carter, a case set in motion by four distinguished members of The Orton Dyslexia Society - Helene Dubrow, Diana Hanbury King, Roger Saunders, and Linda Summer. 

Children with all types handicaps, disabilities, and learning differences benefit from the work of The Orton Dyslexia Society, now known as the International Dyslexia Association.

Note: Click here to see a YouTube video portion of Pete's Keynote at "Decoding Dyslexia Day - Richmond, VA."

By: Peter W. D. Wright, Attorney at Law, Deltaville, VA 
Orton Oaks Member, The International Dyslexia Association

Note: This article was originally published in the Winter 1994 issue of Perspectives, the Journal of the Orton Dyslexia Society, now known as the International Dyslexia Association.

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Revised: 3/26/24
Created: 5/8/98

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