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Pocono Mountain School District v. J.W.

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

September 8, 2017

POCONO MOUNTAIN SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff,
v.
J.W., by and through his Parents, J.W. and S.W. and J.W. and S.W. in their own right, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          A. Richard Caputo, United States District Judge.

         Presently before me are a Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (Doc. 23) filed by the Pocono Mountain School District (the “District” or “Plaintiff”) and a Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record (Doc. 26) filed by J.W. (“Student”), by and through J.W. and S.W. (“Parents”), as well as Parents in their right own right (collectively, “Defendants”). The District commenced this action by filing the Complaint on March 2, 2016, which is in the nature of an appeal under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (“IDEA”), seeking reversal of a final administrative decision dated December 14, 2015 (the “Hearing Officer's Decision”), which found that the District denied Student a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) for his sixth and seventh grade years. Because the Hearing Officer's factual findings are supported by the administrative record and the educational program offered to Student was not reasonably calculated to allow him to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances, the Hearing Officer's Decision will be affirmed, Defendants' Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record will be granted, and the District's Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record will be denied.

         I. Background

         A. Factual Background.

         Student entered the District in kindergarten and continued in the District into junior high school. (See HOD, ¶ 2).[1] Student has a documented medical history of developmental delays. (See id. at ¶ 1). Student has been diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, Asperger's Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Language Disorder, Developmental Coordination Disorder and Mood Disorder. (See id.). Student's educational history includes early intervention services, such as classroom based education and speech and language support, as well as emotional support services. (See id. at ¶ 3). Student's in-school behavioral background includes fifty-five (55) disciplinary referrals since he enrolled in the District in kindergarten. (See S-14, 2). Student received disciplinary referrals for reasons such as defiance, disrespectful behavior, physical alterations, inappropriate language, and possession of a weapon. (See HOD, ¶ 5).

         In October 2012, while Student was in fifth grade, he was offered an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) placing him in Supplemental Education Support, with full-time inclusion in regular education classes. (See id. at ¶ 8; see also S-2, 28). The October 2012 IEP indicated referral to the Emotional Support Classroom when needed by Student or to address inappropriate behavior or conduct. (See HOD, ¶ 8; see also S-2, 48). Student was also to continue receiving speech and language support. (See S-2, 26). The October 2012 IEP also offered a behavior support plan addressing work refusal, frustration, and physical aggression. (See id. at 41-50). Academically, the October 2012 IEP identified Student's performance as below fourth grade average in mathematics and average in reading fluency and comprehension pursuant to criterion-based testing. (See HOD, ¶ 9). On the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (“PSSA”) for his fifth grade year, Student tested basic on math and writing and below basic in reading. (See S-7, 6).

         Student began his sixth grade year, i.e., the 2013-2014 school year, with the October 2012 IEP in place. (See N.T. 314:7-16).[2] During Student's sixth grade year, Student struggled with academic performance, organization, and homework/assignment completion. (See HOD, ¶ 16). Student frequently slept in class and his conduct interfered with the learning process, including acts of aggression, cursing and muttering under his breath, refusal to follow rules, and defiance. (See id.). Student's struggles and behavioral issues were known by the District from the outset of the 2013-2014 school year. (See id. at ¶ 18). To help Student with his performance that year, Parents retained a private tutor. (See id. at ¶ 19).

         In October 2013, a new IEP was offered to Student for the remainder of his sixth grade year. (See S-4, generally). The October 2013 IEP documented Student's academic performance in mathematics as severely below fifth grade average, while his reading fluency and comprehension performance were both average. (See id. at 10-11). The October 2013 IEP offered measurable goals for mathematics, vocabulary, language processing skills, and English language syntax. (See HOD, ¶ 25). Additionally, modifications and specially designed instruction were provided to address, inter alia, Student's needs regarding organization, processing instructions, processing speed, homework completion, vocabulary, attention difficulties, and emotional regulation/classroom behavior. (See id.). The October 2013 IEP further provided a behavior support plan addressing work refusal, frustration, and physical aggression. (See id. at ¶ 26). The behavior plan also utilized a point plan which Student would earn points based upon teacher judgment and teacher assessment of Student's overall behavior during each class. (See id. at ¶¶ 27-28).

         A reevaluation report of Student was prepared by the District in March 2014. (See id. at ¶ 30). The March 2014 reevaluation report included a review of Student's educational records as well as the administration of sub-tests of a standardized achievement test. (See id. at ¶ 31). The results of Student's reading scores in the March 2014 reevaluation report were mixed, including that Student was reading at a third grade level and that his scores were below basic, but Student scored above the benchmark for reading fluency in a standardized assessment for monitoring the emergence of early literacy skills. (See id. at ¶ 32). In math, Student's benchmark testing was below basic, but his performance on the fifth grade PSSA in math was basic. (See id. at ¶ 33). Student's first and second quarter grades for the 2013-2014 school year were passing and at or above the “C” level. (See id. at ¶ 34). The report concluded that Student no longer had a speech/language impairment and should be dismissed from the speech/language support program. (See id. at ¶ 30). Student's primary disability category as identified in the March 2014 reevaluation report was Other Health Impairment. (See S-7, 13).

         In April 2014, a new IEP was offered by the District. (See S-8, generally). The April 2014 IEP continued Student's placement in supplemental emotional support with all classes in regular education. (See id. at 22). The positive behavior support plan again noted Student's behaviors of concern, including work refusal, frustration, and physical aggression. (See id. at 27-28). Additionally, the April 2014 IEP identified falling asleep during class as a behavior of concern. (See id. at 28).

         The April 2014 IEP remained in place at the beginning of Student's seventh grade year, the 2014-2015 school term. (See N.T. 339:4-23). A team IEP meeting was held in February 2015 at the request of S.W. because of concern about Student's behavior. (See HOD, ¶ 49). S.W. also requested a reevaluation of Student's IEP at that time to ensure it was meeting Student's academic needs. (See S-11, 1). S.W. further indicated that it was taking Student a “very long time” to complete his homework. (See id.). However, S.W. was reluctant to cut down her son's workload. (See id. at 1-2). Student's grades for the second quarter of his seventh grade year were poor, including 65% in social studies, math, and English language arts, and 70% in science. (See id. at 8). The main cause for the poor grades was identified as Student's lack of effort and completion of work. (See id.). At that time, it was determined that Student would be placed in learning support for his English language arts class and that a reevaluation of Student would be conducted which would include educational testing. (See id.). Additionally, the February 2015 IEP noted that Student's classroom behavior inhibited his ability to learn and that Student refused to complete work and would fall asleep in class. (See id. at 9). The IEP was also revised to permit Student to chew gum or have candy in class to reduce Student's use of inappropriate language when frustrated. (See id. at 21).

         A Functional Behavioral Assessment (“FBA”) of Student was prepared in May 2015. (See HOD, ¶ 55). The FBA noted Student's concerning behavior to include frustration and falling asleep in class. (See id.; see also S-13, 1).

         A reevaluation report of Student was provided by the District on or about May 27, 2015. (See HOD, ¶ 56). The reevaluation report summarized Student's educational, behavioral, and medical history. (See S-14, 1-4). The May 2015 reevaluation report set forth Student's report card grades for the prior three years, as well as the first three quarters of his seventh grade year. (See id.). On the sixth grade PSSAs, the May 2015 reevaluation report noted that Student performed below basic in both reading and mathematics. (See id. at 8). The reevaluation report “recommended that the IEP team continue to find [Student] eligible for and in need of special education services as a student within an Other Health Impairment, due to his medical diagnoses and continued behavioral concerns with the school setting, which are adversely impacting upon his educational performance.” (Id. at 31). The May 2015 reevaluation report further indicated that Student satisfied the eligibility requirements for the educational classification of Specific Learning Disability. (Id.). More particularly, the May 2015 report stated that Student “does not achieve adequately for a student his age in the areas of basic reading skills, reading comprehension, mathematics calculation, and mathematics problem-solving” based on standardized test performance, and the report provided that Student exhibits weaknesses in these areas relative to his intellectual development and same-aged peers. (Id. at 35; see also HOD, ¶ 62).

         A revised IEP was offered by the District in June 2015. (See HOD, ¶ 68). The June 2015 IEP included a modification of work in Student's core academic classes according to his reading and writing ability. (See S-15, 29). Itinerant emotional support was provided for in the June 2015 IEP. (See id. at ¶ 69). The June 2015 IEP also provided a positive behavioral support plan to address inappropriate language and in-class sleeping. (See id. at ¶ 73). Student, however, was ineligible for Extended School Year (“ESY”) following the 2014-2015 school year because Student “continue[d] to make progress on his IEP goals. [Student] does not demonstrate difficulties recouping previously learned information and/or skills upon return of an extended interruption of curricular instruction. In addition, he also demonstrates the ability to maintain curricular instruction and content.” (S-15, 32-33).

         On August 26, 2015, the District revised Student's IEP to change Student's school to the catchment area school. (See id. at ¶ 74). Further, Student was placed in a supplemental emotional support classroom for mathematics, English language arts, science, and social studies. (See id.).

         B. Procedural History.

         Based on the foregoing, Parents filed a due process complaint on or about July 14, 2015 requesting a hearing pursuant to the IDEA. (See Doc. 7-2, generally). Specifically, Parents alleged that the District denied Student a FAPE as a result of the District's failure to provide adequate behavioral and academic support and Student's failure to make meaningful educational progress. (See id. at ¶ 6). As relief, Parents requested that the District develop an appropriate educational placement for Student, as well as an award of compensatory education for the 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 school years, i.e., Student's sixth and seventh grade years. (See id).

         The Hearing Officer conducted evidentiary hearings on October 28, 2015 and November 2, 2015. (See N.T., generally). By decision dated December 14, 2015, the Hearing Officer granted in part the relief requested by the family. (See HOD, generally). More particularly, the Hearing Officer awarded compensatory education to Student in the amount of six (6) hours per day for every school day attended by Student from the first day of school in the 2013-2014 school year until and including February 28, 2015 and in the amount of two (2) hours per day for every school day attended by Student from March 1, 2015 until the last day of the 2014-2015 school year. (See id. at 21-22). The Hearing Officer, however, denied all other requests for relief, including Parents' claim for ESY for the summer of 2015. (See id. at 19).

         In finding in favor of Student and Parents, the Hearing Officer explained:

[T]he District failed to provide Student with educational services that were reasonably calculated to provide Student with an opportunity for meaningful educational gain, based upon the District's state of knowledge at the beginning of Student's sixth grade and throughout Student's sixth and seventh grades. The District failed to identify Student with a specific learning disability in reading, writing and mathematics, despite its knowledge of Student's severely below-grade academic performance in previous testing. It failed to provide the intensity of supports that would have been reasonably calculated to address these needs appropriately. It failed to address appropriately Student's serious organization and behavioral ...

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