On October 9, 2018, the United States Supreme Court  denied a Petition for a Writ of Certiorari filed by the parents of a West Hartford student eligible for special education and related services, thus concluding over four years of litigation surrounding the provision of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”), and letting stand the 2018 decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals.  The Petition, originally filed in June 2018, requested  that the Supreme Court  review the Second Circuit’s decision in Mr. P. v. West Hartford Bd. of Ed., 885 F.3d 735 (2d Cir. 2018), which held that the West Hartford school district appropriately educated a high school student with an Emotional Disturbance in an alternative high school program called STRIVE, which allowed him to satisfy the district’s high school graduation requirements, and also included various opportunities to develop his postsecondary education, employment, and independent living skills.  The Second Circuit further determined that the district proposed an appropriate postsecondary transition program called ACHIEVE, which would also have provided the student with a FAPE.  Finally, in affirming a September 2016 district court decision in favor of the school district, the Second Circuit held that its earlier “meaningful educational benefit” FAPE standard was consistent with the new FAPE standard articulated by the Supreme Court in Endrew F. v. Douglas Cnty. Sch. Dist., 137 S.Ct. 988 (2017), so the case did not require remand to the lower court for reconsideration under the newly articulated standard.  

Despite the fact that the petition for certiorari was declined by the Supreme Court, the arguments advanced by the parents in this case are interesting and merit critical examination by those working in the field of special education.  The language used by the petition is alarming in many respects, arguing that, while students with reading disabilities have been awarded specific evidence-based reading programs in order to address their reading disabilities, and students with Autism have been awarded ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) programs to address their disabilities, students with mental health disabilities are overlooked in developing and awarding them programs using specific evidence-based methodologies, leading, according to the plaintiffs in this matter, to increasing levels of suicidal and homicidal behavior, up to and including school shootings.  The merits and causal connections between these disabilities and outcomes are, of course, matters of intense debate. However, we predict this will not be the last time that an argument is advanced that a student requires a higher level of intensity in special education programming to address severe mental health needs in order to avert a personal or public safety crisis. 

In petitioning the Supreme Court for review, the parents “[sought] clarification that under the IDEA, students with mental health needs … are entitled to same standard of FAPE as other disability categories.”  In other words, the parents asked the Court to clarify that students with emotional disturbances are entitled to “progress in their actual identified category of disability,” which would enable an assessment of whether the student made progress under the Endrew F. standard “in light of his unique needs.”  Specifically, the parents asserted that the Second Circuit erred in relying upon the student’s adequate grades and standardized test scores as evidence of progress, while ignoring his alleged lack of progress toward his “mental health needs” and increasing social, emotional and behavioral issues.  This, of course, raises the question as to what constitutes programming that “addresses” a child’s “mental health needs.”  As pointed out by the West Hartford briefs in this case, there is no IDEA category for “mental health needs,” but rather, a child qualifies under the category of “Serious Emotional Disturbance.”  And the FAPE standards applicable under IDEA require that the unique needs of the student be identified and goals and objectives written so as to allow the child, with appropriate supports and services, to make progress on the identified goals and objectives.  

Some children will progress from grade to grade while meeting grade-level standards and will receive a regular high school diploma.  Other children will receive special education services until they “age out” at age 21, but will not be able to meet the standards set for their age-appropriate peers.  It is beyond dispute that children with disabilities often suffer from medical setbacks during the course of their educational careers that take many forms, from seizures and degenerative conditions, to stroke, to car accidents and traumatic brain injuries.  Sometimes a child’s mental health deteriorates over time, through no fault of the school district.  School districts are not equipped to “treat” physical or mental illnesses the way that doctors and hospitals do, so that cannot be the FAPE standard as applied to the IEP.  This argument, however, asks that we examine where the boundaries are between “treating” mental health issues and providing appropriate educational services to a student with mental health issues, and seems to come down on the side that we should seek out the mental health equivalent of a Wilson Reading Program or ABA services for inclusion in the student’s IEP, rather than providing what the plaintiffs dismissively see as undifferentiated “school counseling” services.  We defer to the educational experts on this. Are there such services and supports? What do they look like for students with mental illness?  If we can’t “cure” the child’s mental illness through the IEP, what tools can we give the child to use in coping with the effects of the illness, and getting themselves back on track if they suffer an episode or a setback?

Stepping back from the legal analysis, we can all agree that the IDEA strives to improve outcomes for the futures of all students with all categories of disability.  The question becomes, in each individual child’s case, what is a reasonable outcome to achieve by the time that their IDEA mandated services come to an end?  What role does special education services play in achieving that outcome, as contrasted with mental health treatment provided outside of (and hopefully in collaboration with) school?  What do we, as a society, provide for students leaving school at the end of their IDEA mandate in terms of access to mental health treatment that helps them to continue the gains achieved while they were in school, and also to catch them when they suffer setbacks after graduation?

Ultimately, the Supreme Court denied review of this case, allowing the Second Circuit decision in favor of the school district to stand.  While the Supreme Court does not explain its reasoning, it might reasonably be inferred that it did not see the need to weigh in on this particular issue at this time, especially since the standard used in the Second Circuit pre-Endrew F. was already a higher standard of “meaningful educational progress”.  One infers that the Supreme Court agreed with the Second Circuit’s assessment that no corrective action was required at this time.  It might also be reasonable to assume that since the Supreme Court just recently issued the Endrew F. decision, it is content to wait and see how the implications of this decision play out for some period of time before again wading into IDEA jurisprudence with additional guidance in this complex legal area.  While we wait for additional guidance from the Supreme Court, we might be well-advised to keep in mind the arguments advanced in this case and see that all students with disabilities have the benefit of evidence-based educational practices, including those with mental health diagnoses.

Attorneys at Berchem Moses PC are available to consult school districts regarding regular and special education matters in the State of Connecticut.  For further information, please contact Attorney Michelle Laubin at mlaubin@berchemmoses.com.

The United States Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) recently issued several policy guidance letters addressing important issues related to state and districtwide assessments, preschool programming, and disagreements during Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings, known under federal law as IEP team meetings.  While informal and nonbinding, these concise and digestible policy letters provide useful insight into OSERS’ interpretation of the statutes and regulations prescribing school district obligations related to mandatory assessments, preschool programming, and record keeping.

First, in Letter to Kane (Apr.18, 2018), OSERS addressed the potential obligation of school districts to provide compensatory special education and related services to students with disabilities who may or may not participate in required state or districtwide assessments.  Specifically, OSERS was asked to clarify whether school districts are obligated to provide compensatory services to make up for special education and related services missed (1) during the time a student participates in required state or districtwide assessments; and (2) when a parent withholds consent for such assessments and keeps the student home from school while the assessments are being administered.

OSERS recognized the importance of state and districtwide assessments, which are integral aspects of educational accountability systems, and which are used to measure student progress for the purposes of promotion, graduation, and access to educational services.  OSERS also highlighted the general requirement that children with disabilities be included in all state and districtwide assessments, while emphasizing that the IEP team will address the manner in which a student participates in such assessments.  A Student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) will, for example, specify whether the student will take alternate assessments, or whether the student will receive any accommodations during such assessments.

Importantly, OSERS clarified that, generally, a special education or related service missed due to participation in required scheduled assessment will not constitute a denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), and the school district will not be required to make up the missed service.  Additionally, for a student who is absent from school on testing days due to a parent’s choice, the school district will not be obligated to make other arrangements to make up the missed service.

In Letter to Carroll (Apr. 19, 2018), OSERS addressed whether a school district could unilaterally schedule a full school week of special education and related services for a preschool student, despite knowing from the outset the student would not regularly attend school five days per week.  The specific inquiry involved a preschool student whose IEP specified 1,500 minutes of specially designed instruction per week, divided equally between a special education class and a general education class.  During the IEP team meeting in which the IEP was developed, no particular schedule was agreed upon, but the parents informed the IEP team that the student would attend the preschool program only three days per week so as to allow for participation in other activities and services outside of the school setting.  

Because it was unlikely that the full 1,500 minutes of weekly instruction could be provided in only three school days, the school district inquired whether it could unilaterally implement a schedule after the PPT meeting that provided for less than the 1,500 minutes.  OSERS noted that an IEP must identify the specific amount of special education and related services that a student will receive so that the school district’s commitment of resources is clear.  OSERS then emphatically stated that, under the IDEA, a school district cannot unilaterally change the amount of services included in a preschool student’s IEP.  As such, if the school district wanted to revise the amount of instruction provided for in the student’s IEP, it would have to engage the parents in further discussion, even if such discussion took place outside of a PPT meeting.  If the parents and school district agreed to change the student’s IEP, the changes would also have to be memorialized in an amended IEP following appropriate amendment procedures.

The form of the district’s inquiry is somewhat puzzling, since it seems as though the district could have solved the problem by preparing a schedule of services that would comply with the requirements of the IEP, and then simply noting when the parent chose to make the student available for the services that had been scheduled, and when the student was not made available.  Nonetheless, if a district wishes to reduce the amount of services available to a student through the IEP, proper procedures need to be followed to either amend the IEP or reconvene the meeting and have further discussions with the parent.

Finally, In Letter to Zirkel (Apr. 19, 2018), OSERS addressed the status of dissenting opinions from IEP team members.  Specifically, OSERS was asked whether it is permissible for a teacher or other district member of the IEP team to enter a dissenting opinion on a student’s IEP or elsewhere in the student’s record.  An example was provided involving a teacher who objects to the placement of a student in his or her classed based on behavioral and/or academic issues, while the PPT ultimately determines that placement in the teacher’s class is appropriate.

OSERS noted that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not specifically address the issue of disagreements among school team members during IEP team meetings, except in the context of students suspected of having specific learning disabilities.  Specifically, 34 C.F.R. § 300.311(b) requires a team member who disagrees with an evaluator’s conclusions regarding a student’s potential learning disability to submit a separate statement reflecting his or her own conclusions.  As previously articulated in Letter to Anonymous (Oct. 29, 1996), however, an IEP team is not responsible for implementing the recommendation of an individual team member.

Due to the lack of a definitive authority on the subject, OSERS deferred to state and local educational agencies, which may maintain policies and procedures regarding the documentation of dissenting opinions among school team members during IEP team meetings.  Neither the Connecticut General Statues, the implementing Regulations, nor any other State authority addresses the extent to which such dissenting opinions must be documented in a student’s IEP or elsewhere.  As such, district personnel should determine whether their board of education maintains any relevant policies or procedures regarding disagreements during PPT meetings.  Importantly, however, during certain PPT meetings, such as manifestation determination meetings, the dissenting opinions of team members regarding issues such as whether a student’s behavior constituted a manifestation of his or her disability should be carefully documented in the worksheets memorializing the PPT’s ultimate decisions and recommendations. 

The full texts of the OSERS policy guidance letters, as well as additional OSERS resources, are available via the following web link:

https://sites.ed.gov/idea/policy-guidance/ 

As previously stated, policy guidance letters issued by federal and state agencies and their subdivisions, including the OSERS letters discussed herein, are informal, nonbinding, nonbinding, and do not establish a policy or rule that would apply in all circumstances.  School district administrators should consult with legal counsel as needed to resolve matters related to special education, including but not limited to state and districtwide assessments, disagreements during PPT meetings, and preschool programming.

Attorneys at Berchem Moses PC are available to consult school districts regarding regular and special education matters in the State of Connecticut.  For further information, please contact Attorney

On November 16, 2015, the Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague Letter providing guidance concerning the alignment of an individualized education program (IEP) with the state standards for academic grade-level content. The Department of Education stated that in adhering to federal laws requiring that all students within a state have the same academic content and standards for achievement, an IEP for an eligible child with a disability under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) must therefore align with the state academic content standards for the particular grade in which the student is enrolled.

Under the IDEA, an eligible child with a disability must be provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Accessing FAPE includes providing a child with a variety of services designed to meet their specific educational needs presently and in the future, as well as prepare the child for future employment opportunities and independent living situations. In order to achieve FAPE and provide these necessary services for a disabled child, the IEP must be designed to allow the child to access, be involved, and make progressions within the general education curriculum set forth by their state.

Part B of the IDEA however references “specially designed instruction.” Specialized instruction allows an eligible disabled student to access the general curriculum by adapting the content and teaching methods to best serve the unique needs of the student. This requires the IEP team to make individualized decisions regarding what services and methods of instruction will best allow the student to reach the goals set forth by their IEP in conjunction with state standards.

The Department of Education did acknowledge that there is a small population of children with significant cognitive disabilities that may prohibit their achievement from being measured in comparison to the state standards. In these instances, alternative academic achievement standards may be created. These standards must still align with the state’s academic content standards, however the alternative standards can take other forms. For example, in order to reach a goal of performing the entire activity at grade level, an alternative standard could be requiring mastery of the introductory and pre-requisite skills required to perform the activity. The Department of Education suggests that the IEP team create ambitious goals that may seek to close the gap between the child’s current academic level and the grade-level standard the state sets.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, research has shown that when provided with appropriate instruction and services, children with disabilities can make great academic progress and strive toward grade-level general curriculum achievement. It is therefore very important that an IEP team carefully evaluate the unique needs of a particular child and create an IEP with appropriate goals and instruction methods to achieve those goals outlined while adhering to state academic content standards.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (“OSERS”) published a new “Dear Colleague” letter in August which discusses best practices for handling of bullying cases involving a student with a disability.  The letter describes that the bullying of a student with a disability that results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit constitutes a denial of FAPE.  The letter stresses that students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by bullying.  Due to the characteristics of a student’s disability, he or she may also not understand the extent to which the bullying is harmful and may not be able to communicate the problem to an adult.  The letter states that even if the bullying is not related to the student’s disability, if the result of the bullying is the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit, then there is a denial of FAPE.  

Continue Reading New Guidance Released on Bullying as Related to Students with Disabilities

In a decision issued March 31, 2012, a United States District Court judge has rejected the appeal of the Plainville, Connecticut board of education from a hearing officer’s ruling mandating reimbursement for residential placement at the F.L. Chamberlain School in Massachusetts.  In Plainville Board of Education v. R.N. by Mrs. H., 112 LRP 16721 (D. Conn. 2012), Judge Chatigny deferred to the rulings of the hearing officer on issues of educational policy and her findings of fact in ruling in favor of the parent.  As described in the decision, the case presents a remarkable picture of a student who, as a result of severe emotional disturbance, was unable to benefit from a therapeutic day program and required a residential placement in order to make educational progress, and it also addresses some common legal disputes between parents and school districts on the subject of obtaining evaluations and exploring appropriate placement options.  See if you recognize any of this pattern in your current cases:

Continue Reading IEE’s, Residential Placement, Failure to Provide FAPE Addressed in Plainville Court Decision

If you are responsible for the implementation of either IEP’s or Section 504 plans in your school district, at some point, you have probably encountered a situation where a parent refuses to provide consent (or revokes consent) for an IEP, and insists that the district instead implement a Section 504 Accommodation Plan.  If so, you have probably wondered whether the district was obligated to do this, and you may have read the 1996 letter of guidance issued by OCR called Letter to McKethan, 25 IDELR 295 (OCR 1996).  Well, it looks like McKethan just got another "shot in the arm" from a U.S. District Court judge in the Western District of Missouri.

Continue Reading Parents Refuse Consent for IEP? Still No Obligation to Write 504 Plan

In a move that seemed to defy logic, the Connecticut Education Association (CEA) on behalf of its local affiliate the Milford Education Association, filed a complaint claiming that a popular software program, specifically designed to make easier the process of completing paperwork following a Planning and Placement Team meeting (PPT) for a special education student, in fact increased teachers’ workloads.  In the case filed with the State Labor Board, the CEA alleged that the software program took teachers nearly twice as long (one to two hours more per student) to compete an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) than it previously took to do it in long hand.  The workload of the teachers complaining involved in some cases as few as 6 students. 

 

Continue Reading LABOR BOARD REBUKES TEACHER UNION CLAIM THAT NEW SOFTWARE CAUSED INCREASED WORK LOAD

This is one of those (rare) moments where, as a school lawyer, you think common sense has prevailed.  We shouldn’t need a decision from a State hearing officer to tell us that once a parent has revoked consent for special education services, then the parent cannot come back and claim that the district has denied the child a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).  And yet, we had a four-day hearing in February and March concerning that very issue, resulting in Final Decision and Order 11-0256, Student v. Newtown Board of Education.  The decision will be posted on the State Department of Education website, but until then, you can read a copy of it here.

Continue Reading Parent Cannot Revoke Consent for Special Ed, Then Claim Denial of FAPE

A recent letter issued by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) calls into question the practice of denying a request to evaluate a student for potential learning disabilities based upon the failure of the private school where the child attends to conduct Response to Intervention (RTI) activities (or, as we in Connecticut call it, SRBI).  In Letter to Zirkel, 111 LRP 2768 (OSEP 1/6/11), Dr. Zirkel asked OSEP to comment on the question of how a school district that has adopted an RTI approach may meet its "child find" obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in a case where the student attends a private school and the private school has not adopted an RTI approach.  These cases can arise because the child’s parents have enrolled the student in a private or parochial school and either the parents or the private school may come to suspect that the child has a learning disability and make a referral to a public school district for evaluation.  If the parents withdraw the stduent from private school and enroll in public school before making the referral for evaluation, these matters may be resolved by having the student participate in the increasingly more intensive tiered levels of instruction in general education required by most RTI models.  However, if the parents want the child to remain in the private school during the evaluation process, the district is now faced with a conundrum: How do we satisfy our obligation to determine whether the child responds to appropriate instruction in general education if we are unable to provide the appropriate instruction that we would typically provide in this situation?

Continue Reading OSEP Says Don’t Insist on RTI Evidence Before Evaluating Private School Students for Learning Disabilities

In a decision released by the Connecticut Supreme Court on November 16, 2010, Board of Education of Region 16 v. State Board of Labor Relations et al., Region 16 appealed to the Superior Court challenging a decision by the state board of labor relations (“SBLR”) which concluded that the school district had unilaterally changed a condition of employment in violation of Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-153e (b) when it increased the workload of four special education teachers during the course of a school year. The SBLR also held that the school district had engaged in unlawful direct dealing with the employees. The Superior Court dismissed the appeal. The school district appealed to the Appellate Court, which, in turn, transferred the appeal to the Supreme Court.

Continue Reading Connecticut Supreme Court Addresses Whether Mid-Year Increase in Teacher Workload Constitutes Unilateral Change of Condition of Employment