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Centennial School District v. Phil L.

March 26, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Eduardo C. Robreno, J.



This action arises as a cross-appeal from an administrative determination under the Rehabilitation Act. The parties are Centennial School District ("District") and Matthew L., by and through his parents Phil L. and Lori L. ("Parents"). Matthew was a student in the District and was evaluated, but not deemed eligible, for special education under Section 504(a) of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a). Matthew is, however, on psychopharmacological treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"). In the Spring of 2007, Matthew scrawled a bomb threat on a school bathroom wall and was subsequently expelled. Matthew's parents sought an evaluation to determine his eligibility for special education and, if he was eligible, tuition reimbursement for his placement in the Wyncote Academy, a private school.

Before Matthew's expulsion, on September 13, 2007, Matthew's parents requested an administrative due process hearing, pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(A), to evaluate Matthew's eligibility under both IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and requested compensatory education as well as District funds for Matthew's placement in a private school.

On January 11, 2008, the hearing officer found that Matthew was eligible for special education under Section 504(a), but denied the request for tuition reimbursement and compensatory education.*fn1 (Hr'g Decision, doc. no. 49, Pl.'s Ex. 10.) The District challenges the eligibility determination and the Parents challenge the denial of relief. After an analysis of the law and the facts, the hearing officer made the following rulings:

1. Matthew [L.] is eligible as a student requiring a Section 504/Chapter 15 service agreement as a result of his ADHD. 2. Matthew [L.] is not eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act as a student with a learning disability. 3. Matthew [L.] is not eligible for tuition reimbursement at the Wyncote Academy. 4. Matthew [L.] is not eligible for compensatory education services due to a denial of free appropriate public education.

(Id. at 23.)



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., 550 U.S. 516 (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, 550 U.S. at 524 (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 Board of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 179, 199 (1982) (finding that a FAPE does not require "the furnishing of every special service necessary to maximize each handicapped child's potential"). Rather, school districts are obligated "to provide an IEP [individualized educational program] 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).

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). This 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 [a] private placement [in a private school] if (1) the court determines [that] the student's IEP is inappropriate and (2) the student ...

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