Recently a federal court in Lessard v. Wilton-Lyndeborough Cooperative School District rejected parents’ arguments finding a school district offered a student FAPE in the least restrictive environment and that a proposed IEP was appropriate. Although the decision is not binding on Oregon school districts because it comes from a different jurisdiction, it presents a valuable lesson with regard to the extent of districts’ responsibility to accommodate parental requests throughout the program planning process.
S.L. is a student with multiple disabilities including speech-language impairment, mental retardation, and orthopedic impairment. In 2001, S.L. began attending a rehabilitation center as a day student. Parents began to disfavor S.L.’s placement in the rehabilitation center believing she failed to adequately develop academically and that the placement was the cause of behavioral problems she exhibited while traveling to and attending the center.
For a six month period before the beginning of the 2005-06 academic year, the IEP team, including the parents, met six times to develop an IEP addressing S.L.’s many needs; however, S.L.’s parents were unhappy with aspects of the proposed plan. In particular, the parents wanted a home and community based program in which an outside vendor would work with S.L. to help her develop basic life skills and means of community interaction. Because the parents wouldn’t agree to the district’s alternative proposals, the previous year’s IEP remained in effect pursuant to the IDEA’s “stay put” provision, and the parents ultimately removed S.L. from the rehabilitation center in late December 2005. After S.L.’s removal, the school district filed a request for due process hearing to determine the suitability of the proposed IEP and the hearing officer upheld the school district’s proposed 2005-06 plan and placement. The parents then brought an action in federal court to review the hearing officer’s decision, seeking an award of compensatory educational services. The trial court upheld the hearing officer’s ruling and the parents appealed to the federal court of appeals.
On appeal, the parent’s argued the proposed IEP was inadequate because (1) it failed to provide appropriate literacy and transitional services, and (2) placement at the rehabilitation center was overly restrictive and otherwise harmful. The first argument was based primarily on the parents’ insistence, in accordance with a physician’s advice, that the district provide a requested literacy program and an experienced instructor to teach the program. When the district offered to provide the requested program but could only provide a newly trained instructor to teach it, the parent’s rejected the offer. The court upheld the trial court’s finding that the parents’ request for a more experienced instructor was not sufficient to invalidate the literacy program offered in the IEP and that the parents did not show that other programs being offered at the rehabilitation center were inappropriate. The court found the possibility S.L. may have benefitted more with an experienced literacy instructor did not mean the district made an unreasonable choice to provide the program with a speech pathologist newly trained in the program.
With regard to the parents’ objection that the proposed IEP failed to place the student in the least restrictive environment and was otherwise harmful, the court found the parents’ proposed placement—in a home and community based program—was considered more restrictive under the applicable state regulations than the day program at the rehabilitation center. In addition, the court upheld the trial court’s finding that the parents’ failed to show the rehabilitation center was the cause of S.L.’s behavioral problems and that her problems were decreasing over time.
Take away: The IDEA mandates parental participation in both plan development and placement decisions, meaning districts should take reasonable efforts to involve parents and consider their recommendations and input. Involved parents often times are the best source of information concerning a child’s educational needs. With that said, no one factor is dispositive in placement decisions and it is clear that parental preference can be neither the sole nor predominant factor in placement decisions and IEP development. In addition, the possibility a recommended element of an IEP could provide more benefit to a child does not force the district to provide the element; the standard is that the IEP must be “reasonably calculated” to deliver “educational benefits” and often what is “appropriate” depends on available options, expert judgment, and the child’s progress.