The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal court over Oregon, recently ruled that if placement in a residential facility is in response to issues unrelated to a student’s educational needs, the placement cannot be considered necessary under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).
In 2001, Ashland School District (District) found R.J. eligible for services under the IDEA, noting she had been diagnosed with ADHD, and established an individual education plan (IEP) with her parent’s approval. A revised IEP in 2003 noted that R.J. received A’s and B’s when she completed her work, but struggled to complete many of her assignments. To address R.J.’s needs, the new IEP called for specially designed instruction and counseling support. R.J. was reevaluated in ninth grade by a school psychologist who concluded that her ADHD was not having a significant impact on her classroom performance. The next month, the IEP team renewed her existing IEP with only minor changes.
In 2005, R.J.’s parents began to be concerned because she was engaging in self-destructive behaviors, risky sexual practices, snuck out of the house repeatedly to meet males, and was dishonest at home. R.J.’s mother expressed concern to the District about these emotional and behavioral issues and advised the District she was considering a more restrictive placement. Despite the District’s repeated attempts to modify the IEP to address R.J.’s specific needs and accommodate the mother’s concerns, R.J.’s mother eventually decided to take her out of school and place her in Mount Bachelor Academy, a private residential facility in Oregon. Soon after R.J.’s placement there, however, she was expelled for having sex with another student and her parents decided to enroll her instead in Copper Canyon, a more restrictive, all girl private residential facility in Arizona. Thereafter, R.J’s parents sought reimbursement from the District for tuition at the two private schools on the grounds that the District failed to give R.J. a free appropriate public education. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court’s ruling finding the District provided a free appropriate education and residential placement was not necessary to meet R.J.’s educational needs.
The 9th Circuit found that private-school placement in a residential facility is only appropriate if it is necessary to provide special education and related services. The appropriate focus under the IDEA is whether placement in a residential facility is necessary to meet the student’s educational needs. If the placement, however, is in response to issues unrelated to the student’s education needs, such as medical, social, or emotional problems apart from the learning process, then it cannot be considered necessary under the IDEA. The court found that R.J.’s parent’s decision to place her in a private residential facility was prompted by R.J.’s defiant behavior at home, not from issues related to the learning process.
Take away: In considering whether a private residential placement is necessary to provide a student with FAPE, the district is only obligated to consider the student’s educational needs. Districts are not required to provide special education and related services to remedy outside issues like behavioral problems at home, medical, social, or emotional problems apart from the learning process.