The Supreme Court today refused to let public schools cut off educational help to severely handicapped children even though they may not be able to benefit from such services.
The court, without comment, rejected an appeal by a New Hampshire school district ordered to help a profoundly retarded 13-year-old boy.
The case has attracted widespread attention from educators and state and local government officials nationwide who supported the appeal by the Rochester, N.H., school district.
The boy in the case, identified as Timothy W., has been severely handicapped since he was born two months prematurely on Dec. 8, 1975.
Rochester school officials said he is incapable of learning even rudimentary skills.
"Timothy has consistently exhibited profound mental and developmental retardation, deafness and blindness, a persistent convulsive disorder and severe cerebral palsy," they said. "He is virtually immobile, suffers from spasticity and has contracted joints."
But the boy's mother and some therapists painted a somewhat different picture. They said he sees bright light, smiles when happy, cries when sad, listens to television and music, and responds to touching and talking.
At issue is the duty of states and local school officials under the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which provides federal aid and requires programs to help such children.
The U.S. 1st Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May that under the law "it is the state's responsibility to experiment, refine and improve upon the educational services it provides to handicapped children and not . . . to exclude handicapped children if there is no proof that they can benefit from the existing program that a state might offer at a particular time."
A chief aim of the law is to help the most severely handicapped, the appeals court said as it reinstated a lawsuit by Timothy's mother seeking educational services and $175,000 in damages.
Rochester school officials said the appeals court ruling means states and cities will be forced to divert scarce resources from those who can benefit from them to children who cannot be helped.
They said the federal government contributes less than $300 to the $15,000 a year it will take to provide educational services to Timothy.
Among those supporting the school officials' appeal were the National School Boards Assn., the American Assn. of School Administrators, the National League of Cities and the National Conference of State Legislatures.