Special Education Case Law Update – Week of November 25, 2012

Posted on December 7, 2012

E.T. v. The Board of Education of the Pine Bush Central School District, 2012 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 167977 (S.D. N.Y. Nov. 26, 2012)
E.T. discusses the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400., et seq.  for public financing of a private school placement in the context of two districts having an obligation to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE).  For the reasons discussed below, the federal Court remanded the case back to a New York State Review Officer (SRO) for further findings.

E.T. and his parents resided within the Pine Bush Central School District, the Defendant.  However, for the 2010-11 school year in dispute, the parents unilaterally placed E.T. at the Ridge School, a private school located in the Hyde Park Central School District, and sought tuition reimbursement under the IDEA.   E.T. was classified autistic, and was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and school phobia.   He begin to exhibit behavioral and social difficulties in the fall of 2005, his fifth grade year.  In particular, over the following years, E.T. continued to have problems integrating into larger schools and larger classrooms, often having “meltdowns” which would result in him being placed into home instruction for the remainder of a school year.  Throughout E.T.’s schooling, his parents had visited a number of district-proposed placements, some of which in E.T. was ultimately enrolled.  E.T., however, continued to have “meltdowns.”  Finally, in fall 2008, E.T.’s mother advised Pine Bush that E.T. was being placed at Ridge, a school with a total enrollment of 6 students, all of whom were diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.  Evidence indicated that E.T. made significant progress at Ridge.

Later, for the purposes of determining E.T.’s placement for the 2010-11 school year, E.T.’s mother was in contact with Pine Bush which formally recommended two programs for E.T.  However, E.T.’s mother expressed concern about E.T. transitioning from Ridge into the recommended programs.  Concurrently with her discussions with Pine Bush, Hyde Park (the district in which Ridge was located) held a Committee on Special Education (CSE) meeting on June 7, 2010 to create an individualized education service program (IESP) for E.T.  E.T.’s mother communicated to Hyde Park at that meeting that she intended to place E.T. back at Ridge for the 2010-11 school year.  It wasn’t until June 29 that E.T.’s parents communicated to Pine Bush they intended to return E.T. to Ridge for the 2010-11 school year.

The parent’s initiated a due process hearing to determine their right to tuition reimbursement for the 2010-11 school year from Pine Bush.  After a hearing before an Impartial Hearing Officer (IHO), the IHO determined that because the parents had communicated their intention to keep E.T. at Ridge, Pine Bush had no obligation to provide a FAPE to E.T. and thus no obligation to reimburse his tuition.   The parents appealed the decision to a State Review Officer (SRO) who likewise determined that the parents had sufficiently expressed their intent to privately place E.T. at Ridge such that any obligation on the part of Pine Bush to provide a FAPE was eliminated.  The parents then appealed the SRO’s decision to this federal Court.

In reviewing the decision of the SRO, the Court considered the “child find” obligations of IDEA which require a school district to identify, locate, and evaluate all children residing in their district who are in need of special education and related services.   Critically, the Court found that districts are not relieved from offering a FAPE to a qualifying child even though that child may attend school in another jurisdiction.  Along this lines, the Court recognized that two school districts may have IDEA obligations to the same child.   Based on this law, the Court found that though E.T.’s parents had requested services from Hyde Park and enrolled E.T. at Ridge, Pine Bush nevertheless remained obligated to provide a FAPE to E.T.  The Court’s found that a parent’s intent with regard to a child’s enrollment is not dispositive as to whether a school district has a FAPE obligation.  However, once it is determined that a district has failed to offer a FAPE, the parent’s unilateral intent to place a child in a private school is relevant to equitable considerations – such as the reasonableness of the parents’ behavior – that the Court must consider in deciding whether to award tuition reimbursement.

Based on this background of the law, the Court determined that both the IHO and SRO had erroneously concluded that Pine Bush was not obligated to provide a FAPE to E.T.  The Court further found that both the IHO and SRO failed to address whether parental placement at Ridge was appropriate and whether equitable factors precluded tuition reimbursement.   The Court therefore vacated the SRO’s decision and remanded the case back to the SRO to determine whether Pine Bush provided a FAPE to E.T., and if it did not, then whether the placement at Ridge was appropriate.  Finally, the SRO was to determine on remand, if the placement was appropriate, whether equitable considerations warranted tuition reimbursement.

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