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Allen v. Susquehanna Township School District

April 21, 2006

FRANK ALLEN AND MARIE ALLEN, PLAINTIFFS
v.
SUSQUEHANNA TOWNSHIP SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner

MEMORANDUM

Presently before the court is a motion for summary judgment by defendant Susquehanna Township School District ("School District") on the claims of plaintiffs Frank Allen and Marie Allen (collectively, the "Allens"), alleging violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1491o, the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. §§ 790-794e, the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. §§ 12131-12134, and the Fourteenth Amendment. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted.

I. Statement of Facts*fn1

This case arises from a particularly tragic incident, which occurred on October 20, 2003. On that date, approximately five hours after running away from the Thomas E. Holtzman Elementary School ("Holtzman"), eleven-year-old Jaquan Rakeem Allen ("Jaquan") was struck and killed by a motor vehicle while attempting to cross Interstate 81. (Doc. 49 ¶ 2 & Ex. 1; Doc. 66 ¶ 2; Doc. 49, Ex. 1; Doc. 68, Ex. 9 at 8, 12.)

By all accounts, Jaquan's formative years were difficult. At an early age, he was removed from his birth-mother's home because of neglect and alleged physical abuse. (Doc. 68, Ex. 10 at 13, 15.) According to his foster care coordinator, Jaquan suffered significant emotional trauma as a result of his early neglect and subsequent separation from his mother and other family members. (Doc. 68, Ex. 10 at 13, 15.) After staying with two foster families, Jaquan was placed with the Allens, who adopted him in February 2002. (Doc. 68, Ex. 10 at 14, 16-17.)

With the Allens, Jaquan entered the School District at Holtzman, where he initially demonstrated signs of anger and physical aggression. He was classified by the School District as a child in need of full-time emotional support. (Doc. 68, Ex. 5 at 40; Doc. 41, Ex. 4 at 32, 45-46.) Based upon this classification, Jaquan was entitled to special education services and a "free appropriate public education" ("FAPE") under the IDEA.*fn2 Pursuant to regulations promulgated under the IDEA, the School District created an Individualized Education Plan ("IEP") for Jaquan and periodically updated it to meet his changing needs. (Doc. 68, Ex. 5.) Mrs. Allen was involved in the development of Jaquan's IEPs and never raised any concerns about them. (Doc. 68, Ex. 5; Doc. 41, Ex. 4 at 52-53.)

While with the Allens and at Holtzman, Jaquan improved behaviorally and academically. (Doc. 41, Ex. 4 at 57, 73-74; Doc. 41, Ex. 10.) In August 2002 Jaquan's emotional support was reduced to part-time, and in April 2003 his emotional support level was reduced to the resource level.*fn3 (Compare Doc. 68, Ex. 5 at 12, with Doc. 68, Ex. 5 at 27.) At this level he was able to attend, in addition to his emotional support class, classes with non-special needs students. (Doc. 68, Ex. 8 at 52-53; Doc. 41, Ex. 6 at 4-5.)

One of the short term objectives or benchmarks in Jaquan's most recent IEP was that "Jaquan will remain in designated areas." (Doc. 68, Ex. 5 at 6; see also Doc. 68, Ex. 5 at 23.) This objective, according to school teachers and officials, did not signal a concern with Jaquan leaving the school; rather, it was intended to help Jaquan to focus and to stay on task within a classroom. (Doc. 68, Ex. 2 at 32; Doc. 68, Ex. 4 at 28-30; Doc. 41, Ex. 6 at 11-12; Doc. 41, Ex. 8 at 8-11.) Jaquan's teachers recognized that he was easily led astray by others. (Doc. 68, Ex. 1 at 36-37; Doc. 41, Ex. 6 at 12.) However, he was not considered a "flight risk" (i.e., a risk to run away from school or a classroom). (Doc. 68, Ex. 4 at 35; Doc. 41, Ex. 8 at 9.) Indicative of his improved behavior, Jaquan learned to handle his problems in school by going to the emotional support classroom. (Doc. 68, Ex. 4 at 35-36.)

In light of his progress as well as their personal experience with him, Jaquan's adoptive parents were surprised that he ran away from school on the day of his death.*fn4 (Doc. 41, Ex. 4 at 83; Doc. 41, Ex. 7 at 18.) The Allens do not recall any instance of Jaquan running away, or threatening to run away, from anywhere. (Doc. 41, Ex. 4 at 82-83; Doc. 41, Ex. 7 at 18.) Nor did they ever request an escort for Jaquan while he was in school. (Doc. 41, Ex. 4 at 82.) They allowed Jaquan to play with friends outside and to go to a friend's house and the bus stop unattended. (Doc. 41, Ex. 4 at 49-50, 69, 86-87.)

On the fateful day in question, Jaquan went to the "work room," located in a trailer adjacent to the school's main building, for recess.*fn5 (Doc. 68, Ex. 1 at 13-14; Doc. 68, Ex. 2 at 6.) Jaquan had lost his recess privilege because he failed to secure a parental signature on his behavior folder from the previous week. (Doc. 68, Ex. 1 at 14; Doc. 41, Ex. 12.) Jaquan was expected to return to his emotional support room after recess in the work room, at 1:05 p.m. (Doc. 68, Ex. 1 at 14.) Instead, Jaquan and another student, who was sent to the work room for disciplinary reasons, decided to leave school grounds. (Doc. 41, Ex. 12.)

Jaquan's emotional support teacher became concerned when he did not return at 1:05 p.m. (Doc. 41, Ex. 12.) Teachers and staff scoured the school's buildings and grounds, and the principal drove around the surrounding area and went to Jaquan's and the other student's residences. (Doc. 68, Ex. 8 at 18-23.) At approximately 1:30 p.m., an officer from the Susquehanna Township Police Department ("STPD") arrived at the school to collect information relevant to the search for the missing youth. (Doc. 68, Ex. 6 at 6.) While officers searched the neighborhood, including nearby woods and the boys' homes,*fn6 a "BOLO," or "be on the lookout," directive was radioed to all STPD. (Doc. 68, Ex. 6 at 6-9, 15-16; Doc. 68, Ex. 7 at 5-7.) Police were informed that Jaquan was believed to have left the school because of a disciplinary incident involving the other student, but were not told that Jaquan was a student in need of limited emotional support. (Doc. 68, Ex. 6 at 9-10, 14-15.)*fn7 Sadly, the missing students were not found until approximately 6:00 p.m. that evening when Jaquan was struck and killed by a motor vehicle while attempting to cross a multi-lane highway. (Doc. 49, Ex. 1; Doc. 68, Ex. 9 at 8, 12.)

On October 19, 2004, plaintiffs commenced the instant action against the School District.*fn8 (Doc. 1.) The complaint avers claims pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Fourteenth Amendment, section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, the IDEA, and the ADA. The School District filed the instant motion for summary judgment and the parties have fully briefed these issues. The motion is now ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review

Through summary adjudication the court may dispose of those claims that do not present a "genuine issue as to any material fact," and for which a jury trial would be an empty and unnecessary formality. See FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c). It places the burden on the non-moving party to come forth with "affirmative evidence, beyond the allegations of the pleadings," in support of its right to relief. Pappas v. City of Lebanon, 331 F. Supp. 2d 311, 315 (M.D. Pa. 2004); FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e); see also Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). This evidence must be adequate, as a matter of law, to sustain a judgment in favor of the non-moving party on the claims. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250-57 (1986); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587-89 (1986); see also FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c), (e). Only if this threshold is met may the cause of action proceed. Pappas, 331 F. Supp. 2d at 315.

III. Discussion

Section 1983 of Title 42 of the United States Code offers private citizens a means of redress for violations of federal law by state officials. See 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. The ...


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