In a recent case from the Third Circuit, a school district prevailed against parents’ claims for failure of child find, for denial of FAPE and for private school tuition, both at hearing and in all levels of the parents’ appeals to the federal courts. J.M. o/b/o C.M. v. Summit City Board of Education (July 1, 2022).
The district prevailed simply because it was professional and responsive. At issue was the timeliness of the district’s identification of the student as eligible for special education supports and services under the IDEA.
The parents enrolled the student in the district as a regular education first grader. The parents failed to share with the district that, prior to his enrollment, the student had been asked to leave his day care because of his violent behaviors. The parents also failed to share with the district that, at the time of his enrollment, the student was in the process of being evaluated by a neuropsychologist.
In school, the student immediately began to demonstrate behaviors. In response, the district convened an MDT comprised of a variety of specialists and providers. The intervention team developed a robust plan for the student’s behaviors, for social skills and for academics, and the student made progress.
The outside neurological report was provided to the district at the beginning of October. The report identified a language disorder, pragmatic language disorder, a specific learning disorder and with rule out diagnoses for autism and ADHD.
In October, the parents requested that the district evaluate the student to determine eligibility for special education supports and services. In November, the district convened an MDT comprised of an array of specialists and providers to formulate a plan for a comprehensive evaluation of the student.
While the district’s evaluation was in process, the intervention team met again to review the student’s plan and progress and concluded that the plan was working. The student’s outbursts had been substantially reduced, he had made clear progress with his social skills, and he had improved academically in reading, writing and mathematics. The team determined to continue the plan.
In February, the district issued an evaluation and convened a team of fourteen professionals from multiple disciplines to review the results of the testing that had been conducted by a speech therapist, physical therapist, social worker, psychologist, and occupational therapist.
The team concluded that the student was not eligible for special education supports and services, either because he did not have a disability or because he was not in need of special education, based on the success of his intervention plan.
The parents disagreed and filed for a due process hearing. The parents continued to have the student evaluated. The neuropsychologist issued an additional report in the second half of the student’s second grade school year, now providing diagnoses of autism and ADHD.
Upon its receipt of the additional report, the district pursued a psychiatric evaluation, which agreed with the diagnoses of autism and ADHD. Therefore, the district identified the student under the IDEA and began to develop an IEP for him, shortly before he began his third-grade school year.
Multiple hearing sessions convened over the student’s third grade school year. In the fall of the student’s fourth grade school year, the hearing officer issued a decision that the district had satisfied its child find obligation and dismissed the parents’ complaint. For his fifth-grade school year, the parents enrolled the student in private school and filed an appeal of the hearing officer’s decision to federal district court.
In court, the parents requested compensatory education for the period of time between the district’s determination of non-eligibility and the district’s development of an IEP for him, a period of about a year and a half.
Both the parents and the district moved for summary judgment, and the court ruled in the district’s favor.
The parents appealed the district court decision to the federal circuit court of appeals.
At issue were, first, the district’s use of the response to intervention model in its determination of non-eligibility as opposed to the severe discrepancy model advocated on appeal by the parents, and, second, the relevance of the neuropsychologist’s second report provided in the student’s second grade school year to the district’s first determination in his first grade school year that he was not eligible. In addition, the parents argued that the district was on notice of the student’s possible autism in the student’s first grade school year and so should have been evaluated and determined eligible at that time.
The circuit court found support in the IDEA for the district’s use of the response-to-intervention model and adopted a so-called “snapshot” approach to the parents’ claim of the relevance of the after-provided evaluations. That is, the court found the district could only be held responsible for the information in front of it at the time it determined the student not to be eligible.
As to whether the district should have identified the student at the outset of his first-grade year based on his behaviors at that time, the court underscored the parents’ failure to provide important information to the district that might have supported a determination at that time. Absent that information, the student’s behaviors were not unexpected for a six-year-old entering school for the first time. Besides, the court pointed out, the district responded immediately to provide an intervention plan, which was successful and so special education supports were not necessary.
Bottom Line for Schools
The case is lengthy but its lessons are simple.
The district won because it responded immediately to a student with a phalanx of well-qualified individuals who met repeatedly to provide student-focused, student specific interventions which worked.
The parents lost, in part because they did not provide relevant information to the district upon the student’s enrollment and so could not claim later that, nonetheless, the district should have known that the student was more seriously involved than a typical six- year-old entering school for the first time.