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G.H., et al. v. Great Valley School District

May 14, 2013

G.H., ET AL.
v.
GREAT VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT



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

MEMORANDUM

The plaintiffs, G.H., et al., initiated this case in their own right and as parents of minor-plaintiff S.H., who attended public school in the defendant Great Valley School District during the 2010-11 school year. They contend that the defendant has violated S.H.'s right to appropriate education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), and they seek reimbursement of private school tuition and related fees.

Upon the issuance of a decision from the administrative due process hearing officer denying the plaintiffs' claims, the parties now submit cross-motions for judgment on the administrative record to the instant Court. For the reasons stated below, the Court affirms the Hearing Officer's decision in its entirety. It thus grants the defendant's motion and denies the plaintiffs' motion.

I. Factual History*fn1

The plaintiffs ("Parents") are the adoptive parents of S.H., whom they legally adopted from Cambodia as an infant in 2001. For all relevant time periods, the plaintiffs resided within the Great Valley School District ("the District") in Pennsylvania. McElligott F.F. 1, ¶ 1.

S.H. attended kindergarten at a private school in the area. When she was in first grade, Parents sought a comprehensive evaluation from the District for academic concerns in language arts, speech and language, attention issues, and social-emotional issues. The District conducted a number of assessments, interviewed S.H.'s parents and teachers, and issued an initial evaluation report ("February 09 Report"). The Report concluded that S.H. had a speech and language impairment; it thus initiated speech and language support at the private school from a local intermediate unit. The Report did not identify S.H. as a student with social-emotional or behavioral needs. It concluded that S.H. was ineligible for special education related to those issues. Id. ¶ 7-8, 16, 19.

In the spring of 2010, S.H. began to experience increased difficulty with social issues at school. In addition, her behavior at home intensified and deteriorated, which manifested in the form of tantrums. As a result of these concerns, as well as concerns about S.H.'s reading ability, Parents decided to remove S.H. from private school for the following year and began discussions with the District to enroll her in a second-grade class at General Wayne Elementary School. Id. ¶ 20-22.

Parents and District administrators held meetings and conducted evaluations in preparation for S.H.'s enrollment within the District. In May 2010, the local intermediate unit which had been meeting with S.H. performed an evaluation that found that S.H. exhibited below average results in speech and language. In June 2010, S.H.'s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team developed an IEP to reflect its updated understanding of S.H.'s educational needs ("June 2010 IEP"). The IEP Report was based on the local intermediate unit's evaluations, a private occupational therapy evaluation, S.H.'s grades, and the February 09 Report. Id. ¶ 23, 25.

The District subsequently issued a notice of recommended educational placement (NOREP) in June 2010. The NOREP recommended that S.H. continue to receive special education for her speech and language. It did not re-evaluate S.H.'s behavioral problems or put forth a behavioral plan involving one-on-one support. It also did not recommend that S.H. be placed in Extended School Year (ESY), or summer school, services. Id. ¶ 23-28; 33; see also Pl. Mot. at 5; Def. Mot. at 8, 15, 17-18.

S.H. had a number of tantrums when she was at home for the summer. On June 22, she had one particularly violent tantrum, which culminated in police involvement and a visit to the Devereux Psychiatric Hospital. The next day, S.H. had another tantrum, during which she grabbed a butcher knife and stabbed a chair. Parents re-admitted S.H. to Devereux for a week. McElligott F.F ¶ 30. S.H. was diagnosed by her private psychiatrist, Dr. John Williams, with Disruptive Behavioral Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).*fn2 Pl. Mot. exh. 19 at 1.

The District was aware of these tantrums, and it was aware that S.H. was receiving medical and psychiatric services. In September 2010, S.H.'s IEP team, including Parents and District employees, decided that the June 2010 IEP did not need to be revised. At that point, Parents signed the June 2010 NOREP, formally agreeing with the District's recommendation. McElligott F.F. ¶ 33.

S.H.'s tantrums at home continued throughout the fall of 2010. Her behavioral problems increased in December 2010 with the introduction of a new student into S.H.'s class. S.H. began exhibiting jealous behavior about the new student with one particular student ("social triad problem") that led to issues at recess and during gym and a number of violent tantrums at home.*fn3 Id. ¶ 37-39.

In particular, on February 16, 2011, S.H. had a violent tantrum at home.*fn4 As a result of the tantrum, Parents admitted S.H. into Devereux, where she stayed for one week. Immediately upon her return, she threw another tantrum, and Parents returned her to Devereux until March 15, 2011. The tantrums continued after S.H. returned from Devereux. Id. ¶ 42-43, 52.

S.H.'s IEP Team was convened on April 13, 2011 ("April 2011 IEP"). At this meeting, Parents expressed their belief that S.H. should be identified as a student requiring social, emotional, and/or behavioral support. The District acknowledged the parents' concerns but felt that those issues were not surfacing in the school environment such that they needed to be addressed in the IEP.*fn5 The subsequent NOREP recommended that S.H. continue to be identified as a student with a speech and language impairment, but did not add accommodations related to S.H.'s behavioral issues. It also did not grant ESY services for Summer 2011. Parents disagreed with the recommendation. Id. ¶ 45-46.

In the ensuing weeks, Parents requested a District in-home assessment of S.H.. They also requested an IEP team meeting and expressed an intent to look into a residential treatment facility for S.H.. The District denied the Parents' request for an in-home assessment, but requested permission to initiate a reevaluation of S.H. (which eventually culminated in a Reevaluation Report). Id. ¶ 46-47.

In or around late May to early June, following an interagency meeting involving Parents, an education advocate, District personnel, and community-based mental health services employees, S.H. was approved for admission to a local residential treatment facility. This process was approved by the community mental health system, which recommended potential local placements for S.H.. Parents did not find any of these placements acceptable, and began to search outside of the regional area. Id. ¶ 49, 51, 57.

Also around that time, the District, as part of its Reevaluation Report process, initiated a functional behavior assessment (FBA) of S.H., which was informed by observations of Parents and District staff. Parents recorded multiple problematic behaviors and tantrums at home. The District school counselor, who observed S.H. eight times over one week, recorded no problematic behaviors at school. Id. ¶ 50.

S.H. completed third grade at General Wayne. Her report card for the 2010-11 year reflected no academic difficulties (As and Bs) and made one note of behavioral issues.*fn6

S.H. scored in the proficient range in mathematics and reading on the state assessment. Id. ¶ 53-55.

At home, S.H. continued to exhibit serious behavioral problems. In June 2011, Dr. Williams, S.H.'s private psychologist, evaluated S.H.'s behavior and concluded that she qualified for special education as a student with a serious emotional disturbance. At that point, parents informed the District of their intention to place S.H. at Sandhill/Del Rio, a private therapeutic facility in New Mexico.*fn7 Parents also informed the District of their intent to seek reimbursement from the District for the placement. S.H. was enrolled in Sandhill in July 2011. Id. ¶ 56-59.

The District continued to perform its Reevaluation process, receiving input from Parents, S.H.'s teachers in the District and at Sandhill, private psychiatric and neuropsychological evaluations, and other academic assessments, including the June FBA.*fn8 In October 2011, the District issued its Reevaluation Report. Because S.H.'s speech skills had improved, it concluded that S.H. no longer qualified as a student with a speech and language impairment. It also concluded that S.H.'s social-emotional issues "did not manifest themselves in the school environment such that there was interference with the student's education or the education of others." As a result, the Report concluded that S.H.'s ADHD and behavior did not qualify as IDEA-eligible impairments. However, the Report stated that S.H. did qualify as a "student with a disability" under Section 504, and issued a Section 504 plan to address speech and language articulation issues and emotional regulation issues. Id. § 60-69. Following this Report, Parents opted against re-enrolling S.H. in a District school. Tr. Hr'g 4/10/13 32:2-15.

II. Administrative Hearing

In October 2011, Parents filed a complaint for a special education administrative due process hearing, which was assigned to Hearing Officer Jake McElligott, Esq. The complaint alleged violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act for failure to determine that S.H. was eligible for special education as a student with an emotional disturbance or ADHD; it also alleged that S.H. was denied a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for the 2010-11 school year, inclusive of summers.

H.O. McElligott conducted five days of administrative evidentiary due process hearings between January and February 2012. Throughout the hearings, he heard testimony from S.H.'s mother, District witnesses, witnesses from Sandhill, S.H.'s private psychiatrist, a District special education administrator, and a business administrator from Sandhill.*fn9 On March 27, 2012, the H.O. issued his decision, finding for the District in its entirety. Specifically, he found that S.H.'s issues with respect to behavior and ADHD were not eligible under the terms of IDEA because she "did not exhibit any significant social, emotional, and behavioral outbursts in the educational environment at the District such that there was any adverse effect on the student's educational performance." As a result, the H.O. held that S.H. was provided FAPE by the District at all relevant times, and that she was not entitled to compensatory education or reimbursement of her tuition at Sandhill. He also found that Parents were not entitled to expert witness fees.

In addition to the factual findings described above, the H.O. made findings of credibility regarding the witnesses who had testified at the hearings. The H.O. found that everybody who testified at the hearings testified credibly. However, he accorded less weight to S.H.'s treating psychiatrist, the District's special education administrator, and the business administrator from Sandhill. He explained that these witnesses were ...


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