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D.F. A Minor, By His Parents and Natural Guardians v. Red Lion Area

January 20, 2012

D.F. A MINOR, BY HIS PARENTS AND NATURAL GUARDIANS SCOTT AND SHERRY FAHS, PLAINTIFFS
v.
RED LION AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT, DEFENDANT



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chief Judge Kane

MEMORANDUM

The instant matter arises from a dispute regarding Plaintiff D.F.'s extended school year educational placement. Plaintiffs filed an appeal from a Pennsylvania Hearing Officer's determination regarding the extended school year placement, alleging that the placement violated D.F.'s rights under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. (Doc. No. 1.) Defendants filed a motion for judgment on the administrative record on March 30, 2011. (Doc. No. 19.) Plaintiffs filed their own motion for judgment on the administrative record on April 5, 2011. (Doc. No. 23.) The Court referred the matter to Magistrate Judge Mildred E. Methvin for consideration. (Doc. No. 28.) Magistrate Judge Methvin entered a Report and Recommendation on September 26, 2011, recommending that Defendants' motion for judgment on the administrative record be granted and that Plaintiffs' motion for judgment on the administrative record be denied. (Doc. No. 29.) Plaintiffs filed objections to the Report and Recommendation (Doc. No. 30), which have now been fully briefed. For the reasons stated more fully herein, the Court will adopt the Report and Recommendation and grant Defendant's motion for judgment on the administrative record.

I. BACKGROUND*fn1

D.F. is a child suffering from physical disabilities including blindness and deafness. His individualized education program ("IEP") team determined that an extended school year program combining both school instruction and summer camp during the summer of 2010 would be beneficial to his education. The IEP team met with D.F.'s parents on March 8, 2010, to determine the appropriate extended school year program for D.F. for the summer of 2010. The district issued a notice of recommended educational placement on March 17, 2010, indicating that "the [local educational authority] proposes to provide D.F. with extended school year services during the summer of 2010." The parents signed the notice of recommended educational placement with the caveat that "[they] continue to believe the 8/31/09 IEP is the operative IEP and that includes during ESY."*fn2 In June 2010, after learning that the district selected the Easter Seals camp for D.F.'s non-academic extended school year setting, Plaintiffs objected. Plaintiffs filed a due process complaint on June 21, 2010. On July 6, 2010, a hearing was held, and on July 21, 2010, the hearing officer determined that D.F.'s extended school year program was not inappropriate.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

In reviewing a motion for judgment on the administrative record, the Third Circuit has held that district courts conduct a modified de novo review. S.H. v. State-Operated Sch. Dist. of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 270 (3d Cir. 2003). In conducting this review, the IDEA requires that the reviewing court: "(i) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C). This standard requires the reviewing court to accord "due weight" to the administrative proceedings, being careful to avoid substituting its "own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities [that] they review." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). The court should "defer to the hearing officer's factual findings," unless it can point to contrary non-testimonial extrinsic evidence in the record. Carlisle Area Sch. v. Scott P. by & Through Bess P., 62 F.3d 520, 529 (3d Cir. 1995). The court's review of conclusions of law is plenary, requiring no deference to the state hearing officer's legal determinations. Warren G. v. Cumberland Cnty. Sch. Dist., 190 F.3d 80, 83 (3d Cir. 1999). The burden of proof is on the party seeking relief. L.E. v. Ramsey Bd. of Educ., 435 F.3d 384, 391-92 (3d Cir. 2006.). The party seeking to overturn an administrative decision must: (1) overcome the presumption that the hearing officer's findings were correct; and (2) prove that the proposed IEP was inappropriate. Andrew M. v. Del. Cnty. Office of Mental Health and Mental Retardation, 490 F.3d 337, 345 (3d Cir. 2007); see also Schaffer v. Weast, 546 U.S. 49, 62 (2005) ("The burden of proof in an administrative hearing challenging an IEP is properly placed upon the party seeking relief.").

III. DISCUSSION*fn3

Plaintiffs raise five objections to Magistrate Judge Methvin's Report and Recommendation. Specifically, Plaintiffs maintain that the Report and Recommendation contains the following errors: (1) "the Magistrate Judge misapplied the governing law concerning D.F.'s right to participate with typical peers to the maximum extent appropriate in the summer camp component of his extended year program;" (2) "the Magistrate Judge applied the incorrect legal standards to the issue [of] whether the Easter Seals camp represented the least restrictive environment;" (3) "the Magistrate Judge erred in ignoring the availability of the YMCA camp for typical children as an alternative to the segregated Easter Seals program;"(4) "the Magistrate Judge applied an incorrect legal standard in deciding that the parents were adequately involved in the decision concerning D.F.'s placement for extended school year services;" and (5) the Magistrate Judge erred in concluding that Plaintiffs failed to exhaust their claims under the ADA and Rehabilitation Act. (Doc. No. 30.) The thrust of the first three objections appears to be identical, that is, that the Easter Seals Camp violated the least restrictive environment requirement. Accordingly, the Court will consider the first three objections together. The Court will then consider the remaining objections in turn.

A. Whether Easter Seals Violated the Least Restrictive Environment Requirement

In the present matter, the hearing officer found, and the record reflects, that three camps were considered by the district for D.F.'s extended school year placement: (1) Windsor Wonderland, (2) YMCA, and (3) Easter Seals. The district ultimately arranged for D.F. to attend camp at Easter Seals, which is specifically designed for students with disabilities, and agreed to arrange for D.F. to be accompanied to the camp by a regular education peer in D.F.'s "circle of friends."*fn4 Plaintiffs allege this placement violated the IDEA's least restrictive environment ("LRE") requirement because the district selected a camp for students with disabilities rather than camps organized by Windsor Wonderland or YMCA camps, which were not limited to special needs children. The Report and Recommendation agreed with the state administrative hearing officer that the placement did not violate the LRE requirement; however, Plaintiffs contend that the Report and Recommendation applied the wrong standard in making this determination and that the camps operated by Windsor Wonderland or the YMCA were the proper placement for D.F.'s extended school year program.

The IDEA's LRE requirement mandates that:

To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A). In short, the LRE requirement creates a presumption in favor of integrating children with disabilities, "to the maximum extent appropriate," into regular education classes. See, e.g., Cordero v. Pa. Dep't of Educ., 795 F. Supp. 1352, 1359 (M.D. Pa. 1992).

Of course, while mainstreaming a child, that is, placing him in a regular education classroom, is a goal of the LRE requirement, it cannot be achieved uniformly, and indeed may in certain circumstances actually violate the LRE requirement. See, e.g., Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg by & Through Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 897 (9th Cir. 1995) (holding that where separate teaching would produce superior results to mainstreaming, mainstreaming is neither appropriate nor satisfactory). To that end, the Third Circuit has crafted a two-part test to determine whether a school district is complying with the LRE requirement: (1) a court must determine whether education can be satisfactorily achieved in a regular education classroom with the aid of any accommodations; and (2) if it cannot, a court must determine whether the child has been mainstreamed to the maximum extent appropriate in his alternate placement. A.G. v. Wissahickon Sch. Dist., 374 F. App'x 330, 333 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoting Oberti v. Bd. of Educ., 995 F.2d 1204, 1215 (3d Cir. 1993)). To answer the first question, courts must consider "(1) the steps the school district has taken to accommodate the child ...


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