Manifestation Determination Hearings KingSpry

Federal Court Provides Scrutiny on Manifestation Determination Hearings

Photo of Timothy E. Gilsbach

Posted on January 25th, 2016
by Timothy E. Gilsbach

The recent case of Bristol Township School District v. Z.B., No. 15-4604 (E.D.Pa., Dalzell, J., Jan. 14, 2016) provides a rare federal court ruling on the manifestation determination process required prior to disciplining a student with a disability and it also provides helpful reminders for school entities in carrying out this process.

The Facts

Z.B. involved a student with ADHD who was suspended for “assault” on a teacher and the refusal to follow directions, although there was significant dispute as to what the student actually did or did not do, with numerous witnesses giving differing accounts.

After the District proposed to suspend the student, it scheduled a manifestation determination as required under the IDEA. In preparation for the same, the District’s supervisor of special education reviewed the student’s file and complete portions of a manifestation determination worksheet.

Of note, the supervisor of special education put under the description of the behavior that the student was suspended for “assault” and “refused directive” and that a teacher “sustained injuries” with no further details about the behavior in question. In addition, the supervisor of special education pre-checked “No” on the boxes that ask if the behavior was a manifestation of the disability and whether it was due to a failure to implement the IEP.   

At the manifestation determination, as described by the Court, there was a brief discussion about the fact that the student had recently had a change in ADHD medication, but no discussion on how that may have effected behavior, a cursory review of the facts of the behavior that led to discipline, limiting it to the conclusion that the student committed a violent act and a teacher was hurt, and involved a discussion of whether this type of behavior is generally a characteristic or unusual symptom of ADHD, rather than of how the disability presented in this specific student.

The team found the behavior was not a manifestation of the disability and the student was suspended. The parents challenged the manifestation determination by filing for due process.

The Analysis

At the due process hearing, the Hearing Officer found that the manifestation determination was insufficient, ordered the school to do it again, and ordered an award of compensatory education for all days the student was out of school after the first ten days of the suspension.  The district filed an appeal to Federal court and found that Court was of the same view as the Hearing Officer.

More specifically, both the Hearing Officer and the Court found the manifestation determination was insufficient and found the evidence showed “the school administration was determined to have [s]tudent expelled.”  The Court went on to find a number of problems with the manifestation determination process used by the District.

First, the Court was concerned that the manifestation determination was focused on the general characteristics of ADHD, rather than how it presented in this specific student and pointed out the need to look at how the disability presents in the student in question.

Second, the Court was troubled by the fact that the manifestation determination form was completed prior to the meeting by the supervisor of special education, describing it as “a prefabricated document”, and that the approached used at the meeting was to have the supervisor of special education explain her view and leave it to others to object or disagree, which in the Court’s view stymied what should have been a robust discussion.

Third, the Court was concerned that the manifestation determination looked solely at the behavior as an act of aggressive behavior and whether that was related to ADHD rather than what specifically happened in this incident and its possible connection to ADHD, including a recent change in the student’s medication, leaving the team without the relevant information to make its determination.

Finally, the Court affirmed the Hearing Officer’s order of compensatory education for the missed school and the order that the school hold another manifestation determination.

Bottom Line

The case provides helpful lessons for school entities as they conduct manifestation determinations.

First, the team must come to the manifestation with an open mind as to whether the behavior in question is or is not a manifestation.  Second, the determination must include, both at the meeting and in writing, a robust discussion of the specific behavior involved. Third, the discussion must look at the specific qualities of how the student’s disability presents itself, rather than how the disability generally presents. Lastly, the failure to do both of the following is likely to lead to school liability.

If you have any questions about this topic, please contact your legal counsel or an attorney with the KingSpry Education Law Practice Group.

School Law Bullets are a publication of the school law attorneys of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. John E. Freund, III, is our editor. The article is meant to be informational and does not constitute legal advice.