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Caitlin W. v. Rose Tree Media School Dist.

May 15, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Surrick, J.


Presently before the Court are Plaintiffs Caitlin and Louise W.'s Motion for Disposition on the Administrative Record (Doc. No. 20), and Defendant Rose Tree Media School District's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (Doc. No. 23). For the following reasons, Defendant's Motion will be granted and Plaintiffs' Motion will be denied.


Caitlin W. ("Caitlin") is the minor child of Mark W.*fn1 and Louise W. (collectively "Plaintiffs"). (Doc. No. 1 ¶¶ 10-12; Doc. No. 20, Ex. A at S-1.) Plaintiffs reside in the Rose Tree Media School District ("the District"). (Id.) Plaintiffs seek, inter alia, reimbursement of Caitlin's private school tuition costs from the District under the Individuals with Disabilities Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400, et seq.

For nearly ten years, Caitlin did not attend a public school in the District. Instead, from the Fall of 1992 through the Spring of 2001, Caitlin attended a private preparatory school called the Agnes Irwin School ("Agnes Irwin"). (Doc. No. 20, Ex. C, Findings of Fact ¶ 3.) In the Spring of 2001, Caitlin began to experience academic and emotional problems at Agnes Irwin.

(Doc. No. 1 ¶ 13.) The school could not successfully accommodate Caitlin's problems "despite increased academic and emotional support." (Id.) Consequently, Caitlin withdrew from Agnes Irwin on April 30, 2001, before the end of the ninth grade. (Doc. No. 20, Ex. C, Findings of Fact ¶ 2.)

On May 4, 2001, Caitlin enrolled in the District.*fn2 (Id. ¶ 10.) At the time of her enrollment, Caitlin's parents notified the District that Caitlin was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"), the effects of which made it impossible for Caitlin to attend Agnes Irwin. (Id. ¶ 7.) At the District's request, Caitlin's parents signed a Permission to Evaluate form. (Id. ¶¶8-9.) On July 4, 2001, Caitlin applied to the Academy at Swift River ("ASR"), an "'emotional growth or therapeutic boarding school' located on 650 acres in rural Massachusetts." (Doc. No. 20, Ex. C, Findings of Fact ¶¶ 49, 77.) Caitlin began to attend ASR on August 27, 2001, notwithstanding her enrollment in the District. (Id. ¶ 79.)

On July 26, 2001, following Caitlin's evaluation, the District prepared a Comprehensive Evaluation Report. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 14.) The District recommended that Caitlin receive special education services as a student with ADHD and Serious Emotional Disturbance. (Doc. No. 20, Ex. C, Findings of Fact ¶ 27; Doc. No. 20, Ex. A, at S-7.) On August 23, 2001, the District gave the Report to Caitlin's parents along with an invitation to participate in the Individualized Education Program ("IEP") team meeting. (Id., Ex. C, Findings of Fact ¶ 28.) The meeting was held on August 30, 2001, after Caitlin had already started at ASR. (Id. ¶¶ 29-30, 30 n.7.) The IEP team proposed a program for Caitlin and developed an IEP that summarized Caitlin's current needs and conditions. (Id. ¶ 30.) The IEP team found that Caitlin needed "improved attention and organizational skills, improved self-management of school related behavior, and improved social skills related to peer relationships." (Id. ¶ 31.) The IEP proposed a weekly 45-minute session of mental health counseling at school. (Id. ¶33.) The IEP also proposed "extended test-taking time, quiet area for test taking, assignment modifications, academic monitoring through progress sheets three or four times per marking period, clear and precise directions with checking for understanding, preferential seating, redirection and cues for focusing, provision of assignment book and calendar, monitoring assignment completion, [and] monitoring school behavior." (Id. ¶ 34.) In addition, the IEP proposed "daily check-in support with special education case management to address issues of emotion well-being." (Id. ¶37.) Finally, because Caitlin was new to the District, the IEP recommended that a functional behavioral assessment and behavior plan for Caitlin take place within her first month of school. (Id. ¶ 36.)

Caitlin's parents did not approve of the IEP. They felt that it addressed Caitlin's ADHD but not her emotional and behavioral needs. (Id. ¶ 41.) They thought that Caitlin needed "residential placement in a highly structured therapeutic setting; weekly group and individual therapy; small classes (10 students or less); social skills development; individualized tutoring and mentoring; special learning needs support; psychotropic medication management; [and] family therapy." (Id.) On September 10, 2001, Caitlin's parents rejected the IEP and requested a prehearing conference, mediation, and a due process hearing. (Id. ¶ 81.) The District did not submit the request to the Pennsylvania Department of Education and did not otherwise respond. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 15.) Caitlin remained enrolled in ASR for the entire year. (See Doc. No. 20, Ex. C, Findings of Fact ¶ 56.)

On October 7, 2002, Caitlin's parents enrolled her at a boarding school in Vermont, the King George School ("KGS"). (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 16; Doc. No. 20, Ex. C, Findings of Fact ¶ 57.) In November 2002, they made a second request for a due process hearing with the District. (Doc. No. 20, Ex. D at 2.) This time, the District responded and scheduled a due process hearing. On February 3, 2003, the District held the hearing over a three-day period. (Id., Ex. C.) The Hearing Officer, Linda M. Valentini, Psy. D., concluded that the District had offered Caitlin a "free appropriate public education for the 2001-2002 school year." (Id. at 21.) The Hearing Officer concluded that the unilateral private placements obtained by Caitlin's parents were not appropriate andthat the equities in the matter were equally balanced. (Id.) Caitlin's parents objected to the Hearing Officer's decision and appealed to the Special Education Appeal Panel. (Doc. No. 20, Ex. D.) The Appeals Panel affirmed the Hearing Officer's decision. (Id. at 4.)

On November 3, 2003, Plaintiffs filed this action appealing the decision and seeking, inter alia, tuition reimbursement under IDEA. (See generally Doc. No. 1.) On April 19, 2004, Plaintiffs filed a Motion for Limited Judgment on the Pleadings. (Doc. No. 11.) We denied the motion, stating: in order to conclude that reimbursement is appropriate in this case, we must necessarily determine whether (1) the IEP was inappropriate and (2) the placement of Caitlin at ASR or KGS was appropriate. . . . In this Motion, Plaintiffs do not argue that the IEP was inappropriate or that the placement at ASR or KGS was appropriate. Rather, Plaintiffs rely solely on the fact that Defendant violated the IDEA through its failure to grant Plaintiffs a due process hearing in a timely manner. This is not sufficient. (Doc. No. 14 at 9-10.) Plaintiffs filed a motion for reconsideration. (Doc. No. 15.) On June 30, 2005, we denied the motion for reconsideration. (Doc. No. 17.)

Presently before the Court are Plaintiffs' and Defendant's Cross Motions for Judgment on the Administrative Record. (Doc. Nos. 20, 23.) Plaintiffs again seek tuition reimbursement on the basis of the Administrative Record, claiming that the IEP was inappropriate and that Caitlin's private school placements were appropriate. The District seeks summary judgment based upon the Administrative Record.



The purpose of the IDEA is "to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education [("FAPE")]." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). A FAPE is "an educational instruction 'specially designed . . . to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability,' coupled with any additional 'related services' that are 'required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from [that instruction].'" Winkelman v. Parma City Sch. Dist., 127 S.Ct. 1994, 2000-01 (2007) (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1401(29); id. § 1401(26)(A)); id. § 1401(9)). A "child with a disability" includes those who suffer from a "serious emotional disturbance . . . or specific learning disabilities." 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3)(A). A FAPE must be provided "under public supervision and direction, . . . meet the standards of the State educational agency, . . . [and] include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education in the State involved." Winkelman, 127 S.Ct. at 2001 (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9)).It must be provided at "no cost to parents." Id. (citing 20 U.S.C. § 1401(29)). School districts are not required to provide a FAPE that "maximizes" a child's education. See Rowley, 458 U.S. at 199 (finding that a FAPE does not require "the furnishing of every special service necessary to maximize each handicapped child's potential"). Rather, they are obligated "to provide an IEP that is 'reasonably calculated' to provide an 'appropriate' education as defined in federal and state law." T.B. ex rel. N.B. v. Warwick Sch. Comm., 361 F.3d 80, 83 (1st Cir. 2004) (quoting Rowley, 458 U.S. at 207). Accordingly, school districts need not devise the best possible IEP, flawlessly implement IEPs, or provide what the parents might consider to be an ideal education.

To ensure that every qualifying child receives a FAPE, school districts must develop an IEP that is tailored to the child. Rowley, 458 U.S. at 181. School districts must "conduct a full and individual initial evaluation . . . before the initial provision of special education and related services to a child with a disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(1)(A). The evaluation should rely upon "a variety of assessment tools and strategies to gather relevant functional, developmental, and academic information, including information provided by the parent." Id. § 1414(b)(2)(A). The evaluation should "not use any single measure or assessment as the sole criterion for determining whether a child is a child with a disability or determining an appropriate educational program for the child." Id. § 1414(b)(2)(B).

The IDEA provides for administrative and judicial review of an IEP. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(a) (2008). In Pennsylvania, there is a two-tiered system of administrative review. See 22 Pa. Code § 14.162(o) (2004). Under this system, parents who object to an IEP may request an impartial due process hearing conducted by a hearing officer. Id. § 14.162(b). The hearing must be held within thirty days of the request. Id. § 14.162(q)(1). A party aggrieved by the hearing officer's decision may appeal to a Special Education Due Process Appeals Panel. Id. § 14.162(o). An aggrieved party may then appeal that decision by initiating a civil action in federal district court. Id. § 1415(i)(2)(a). The court "may award a disabled student the cost of ...

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