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Jack J. v. Coatesville Area School District

United States District Court, E.D. Pennsylvania

July 12, 2018

JACK J., through his Parent JENNIFER S.,
v.
COATESVILLE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT

          MEMORANDUM RE: CROSS-MOTIONS FOR JUDGMENT ON THE ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD

          BAYLSON, J.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         This case arises from claims brought by Jack J. (“Jack”), through his Parent Jennifer S. (“Parent”), against Coatesville Area School District (“District”) under the following Federal and State statutes: The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et. seq.; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (“Section 504”), 29 U.S.C. § 794; the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 (“ADA”), 42 U.S.C. § 12101, et. seq.; and Chapters 14 and 15 of the Pennsylvania Code. Parent seeks a compensatory education for the period of January 27, 2016 through May 8, 2017, and an order that the District provide Student with appropriate educational services in the future.

         After a Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer denied Parent's request for relief at a Due Process Hearing, Parent filed an appeal with this Court. Presently before the Court are cross-motions for Judgement on the Administrative Record. After reviewing the record and giving due weight to the findings of the Hearing Officer, this Court will affirm the administrative decision, grant the District's motion, and deny Parent's motion.

         II. PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On November 18, 2016, Parent filed a Special Education Due Process Complaint alleging that the District violated the IDEA and Section 504 by failing to provide Jack a free appropriate public education. A Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer conducted a Due Process Hearing and issued a decision in favor of the District. Parent filed a complaint with this Court on August 23, 2017, appealing the Hearing Officer's decision (ECF 1). The District filed an Answer to the Complaint and asserted affirmative defenses on October 25, 2017 (ECF 3). Parent filed a Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record on February 28, 2018 (ECF 7), the District cross-filed a Motion for Judgment on the Administrative Record on April 5, 2018 (ECF 9) and Parent replied on May 7, 2018 (ECF 11).

         III. JURISDICTION

         Parent now exercises a statutorily authorized appeal of the Hearing Officer's decision. This court asserts jurisdiction under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(A).

         IV. THE IDEA FRAMEWORK

         Congress enacted the IDEA as a framework for providing federal funding to state special education programs. 20 U.S.C. § 1411; Susan N. v. Wilson Sch. Dist., 70 F.3d 751, 755-56 (3d Cir. 1995). To be eligible for federal funding, states must provide a “free and appropriate education (“FAPE”)…to all children with disabilities residing in the State.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). “A [FAPE] consists of educational instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child to benefit from the instruction.” Susan N., 70 F.3d at 756 (citing Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982)).

         The “primary mechanism” for delivering a FAPE is through an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) comprised of “a specific statement of a student's present abilities, goals for improvement, services designed to meet those goals, and a timetable for reaching the goals.” 20 U.S.C. § 1414(b); Susan N., 70 F.3d at 756; D.S. v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ., 602 F.3d 553, 557 (3d Cir. 2010). Each IEP must be created by an “IEP team” composed of the eligible child's parents and various specialized educators. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(4).

         Though “the core of the IDEA is the collaborative process” established between parents and schools through the creation and implementation of a child's IEP, the act sets forth adjudicative procedures for parents who “believe that an IEP fails to provide their child with a FAPE.” Ridley Sch. Dist. v. M.R., 680 F.3d 260, 269 (3d Cir. 2012). The IDEA entitles parents to file a Due Process complaint and receive an “impartial due process hearing” conducted by the State or local educational agency. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(A). A party “aggrieved by the findings and decision rendered” during the due process hearing may appeal by filing a civil action in state or federal court, without regard to the amount in controversy. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i).

         V. HEARING OFFICER'S DECISION

         In response to the filing of Parent's Due Process complaint, a Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer conducted a three-part hearing with sessions occurring on February 6, 2017, April 24, 2017, and May 8, 2017. (Administrative Hearing Transcript “AHT” at 2-350).

         The Hearing Officer found the District's witnesses credible but accorded reduced weight to the testimony of Jack's mother, particularly regarding her “depiction of [Jack's] difficulties in the school setting.” (Hearing Officer Report “H.O. Rpt.” at 11-12.) The Hearing Officer noted that “Parent's testimony reveals a significantly inaccurate understanding of the services available to Student at school and how they were implemented.” (H.O. Rpt. at 12.)

         On May 25, 2017, the Hearing Officer issued a decision in favor of the District, concluding that the District “offered and provided a FAPE to [Jack] at all relevant times” and that “the program was reasonably calculated to provide meaningful benefit, appropriate in light of [Jack's] circumstances.” (H.O. Rpt. at 14.)

         VI. FACTS

         To assess whether Jack was denied a FAPE during the relevant period, this Court must consider the evidence within the administrative record, including the Hearing Officer's decision, the hearing transcripts, various administrative exhibits introduced by both parties, and Jack's relevant IEP.

         a. Background

         Parent's claims arise solely from the period of January 27, 2016 through May 8, 2017, during which Jack was a sixth and seventh grade student. (H.O. Rpt. at 1.) The following factual background offers context for the parties' respective contentions.

         Jack transferred to the District in November, 2013, when he was nine years old. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 1.) Prior to transferring, Jack's previous school evaluated Jack and issued a Section 504 service agreement to support Jack's ADHD diagnosis. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 7.) After transferring, Jack's parents requested that the District reevaluate Jack. (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 7-8.) In a report dated June 9, 2014, the District's evaluator concluded that though Jack exhibited symptoms consistent with ADHD, Jack's educational achievement was not adversely affected and Jack was not eligible for special education services. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 8.)

         During Jack's fifth grade year, Jack's parents scheduled an evaluation with a private psychologist. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 9.) In a report dated April 17, 2015, the private evaluator found that Jack was eligible for special education under the IDEA classification of Other Health Impairment (“OHI”).[1] (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 10.) When Parent shared the private evaluator's recommendations with the District, the District reevaluated Jack. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 15.) The District concluded that due to the increased academic demands of higher grade-level curriculum, Jack's ADHD-related weaknesses were a “substantial detriment to his education.” (Id.) In a report dated June 4, 2014, the District identified Jack as a child with the disability of OHI. (Id.) The District's report concurred with most of the private evaluator's recommendations. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 17.)

         Following both evaluations, the District convened an IEP meeting on July 16, 2015, and drafted an IEP. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 18.) The District could not finalize the draft IEP because Parent, who participated in the meeting by phone, was unable to sign a Notice of Recommended Educational Placement (“NOREP”). (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 19.) When parent later received the NOREP, Parent purportedly did not realize she needed to sign and return the document for the District to begin implementing Jack's IEP. (Id.)

         The District convened a second IEP meeting on January 15, 2016 and drafted an IEP intended to remain in effect until January 13, 2017. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 29.) Though the IEP team considered the recommendations of Parent's private evaluator, Parent was dissatisfied with the level of proposed services and did not sign the NOREP required to approve and implement the draft January, 2016 IEP. (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 30, 45.)

         b. Relevant Period

         On February 10, 2016, Parent sent an email to the District outlining proposed revisions to the draft January, 2016 IEP. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 47.) The District replied to Parent on the same day, indicating that the District had updated the draft January, 2016 IEP to reflect Parent's proposed revisions. (Id.) However, the record indicates that Parent did not sign a NOREP until after the District convened another IEP team meeting in April, 2016. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 68.) The April, 2016, IEP provided for all services offered in the draft January, 2016 IEP, included Parent's proposed revisions, and integrated the results of an occupational therapy evaluation administered by the District. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 52.) Parent signed and returned a NOREP on April 26, 2016, after which the District began officially implementing the April, 2016, IEP. (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 68-9.)

         c. Content of Jack's Evaluations and Relevant IEP

         i. Recommendations of Parent's Private Evaluator - April 17, 2015

         Parent's private evaluator recommended: placing Jack in a setting with a low teacher-to-student ratio; specialized instruction in study skills, general learning, and memory strategies; support for overall organization and specific intervention for multistep projects; note-taking accommodations; testing and assignment modifications; research-based instruction and accommodations for Jack's deficits in writing; and general modifications and accommodations to address Jack's educational needs. (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 11-13.) In addition, the evaluator recommended a comprehensive functional behavioral assessment, a behavioral intervention plan, and an occupational therapy evaluation. (Id.)

         ii. District's Evaluation - June, 2015

         Due to the effects of Jack's ADHD diagnosis, the District's June, 2015 evaluation identified Jack as a child with the disability of OHI. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 15.) The District's report recommended: a highly-structured environment; previewing, chunking, and repetition of lessons; visual delivery of information; supports for note-taking, written expression, organization and following multi-step directions; teaching of reading comprehension strategies, self-monitoring skills, and study strategies; testing accommodations; and consideration of performing a functional behavior assessment and an occupational therapy assessment. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 16.)

         iii. IEP - April, 2016

         Like the draft January, 2016 IEP (never officially approved by Parent), Jack's April, 2016 IEP (“April IEP”) called for placement in itinerant learning support. (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 34, 52.) The April IEP stated:

Jack requires specialized instruction to meet the outcomes identified in his measurable annual goals…. This instruction will require direct, explicit teaching of skills that are not within the scope of grade level curriculum. Modification of the general curriculum to reduce or eliminate grade level outcomes, together with parallel instruction provided by special education or other staff, or provided through use of technology-assisted learning, would allow such skills introduction to occur within the regular classroom. The simultaneous delivery of unrelated parallel instruction, however, would be mutually distracting and would deny Jack any meaningful interaction with his peers. During such instruction, Jack could not participate in the instruction or activities in which his non-disabled peers would be engaged. The required replacement instruction will therefore occur in a special education classroom…Jack will not participate with students without disabilities in the regular education class in Language Arts during small group instruction, when he will receive instruction from the learning support teacher on his instructional level (in either the regular education class as part of the inclusive model, or in the learning support classroom).

(Coatesville Area School District Exhibit “SD” - 8 at 2.) Because the April IEP stated that the instruction could occur either in the regular education class as part of an “inclusive model” or in the learning support classroom, the IEP did not definitively offer direct instruction[2] in Jack's areas of need. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 61).[3]

         The April IEP provided the following measurable goals: a written expression goal; a mathematics fluency goal; a behavioral goal addressing Jack's ability to focus on assigned tasks in the classroom for all core subjects; and an organizational goal.[4] (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 35-38, 52); (SD - 8 at 45-54.) Additionally, the April IEP incorporated the results of an occupational therapy evaluation, identifying Jack as eligible for at least 45 minutes of direct occupational therapy services each month to address visual-motor perception and visual-motor integration deficits. (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 55-56.)

         The April IEP offered the following specially designed instruction and modification provisions:

Tests and quizzes given in a small group, quiet setting with extended time as needed; Parent notification of upcoming assignments and assessments; Use of calculator when not assessing basic fact knowledge; Teacher-made study guides; opportunity for repetition of key points and concepts; opportunities to preview key concepts and, when possible, new information should be chunked; auditory information should also be presented in visual format; additional support for the writing process including the use of graphic organizers and editing support' the use of checklists and models to help Jack understand expectations; the use of numbered multi-step directions; practice drilled math facts; provide Jack with frequent verbal cues to remain on task and engaged; provide physical cues such as proximity to increase time on task; allow Jack time to purge and organize materials; provide Jack with an organization checklist to use at the end of the day; Jack will check-in with his special education teacher in assigned room and checkout with his special education support service teacher at the end of the day for organizational support.

(H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 39-42, 52); (SD - 8 at 55-57.)

         Notably, the April IEP incorporated multiple recommendations of Parent's private evaluator and included most of the special education services recommended by the District's June, 2015 evaluation report. (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 60, 65.) During the April, 2016 IEP meeting, the team discussed performing a Functional Behavioral Assessment, but Jack's case manager and special education teacher did not consider a behavior plan to be necessary. (H.O. Rpt. ¶ 66.)

         d. Implementation of the April, 2016, IEP

         During the first several months of the relevant period, the District began implementing parts of the draft January, 2016 IEP despite not having received a signed NOREP from Parent. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 46.) Full implementation of the April IEP began during the second half of Jack's sixth-grade year after Parent signed and returned a NOREP. (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 68-69.) The record supports the Hearing Officer's determination that Jack's special education teachers, regular education teachers, and service providers implemented the April, 2016, IEP substantially during Jack's sixth and seventh grade years. (H.O. Rpt., ¶ 69.)

         i. Sixth Grade Implementation - 2016-2017 School Year

         The Hearing Officer's decision cites to testimony from Jack's special education teacher who was primarily responsible for implementing the April IEP during Jack's sixth grade year. (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 69-79.) At the administrative hearing, Jack's sixth grade special education teacher stated, “I ensured that accommodations were being followed by regular ed teachers. I had Jack in my classroom for tests and quizzes. I also pushed into his math class.” Later in her testimony, the special education teacher provided,

I met with Jack at the beginning of…the April IEP to teach him and label his folders per subjects and to make sure he organized each thing into the correct folder. And then I also gave him a laminated checklist for him to use in his classes. I had numbers and a box next to it that he could check off…for long class work assignments or tasks to complete his regular ed class. He could-he or the teacher could write down those steps so that he could check them off when they were completed. And they taught him how to use that. And I also taught him how to use the checklist…that was in his locker as far as making sure that he had the correct materials with him every day for his… classes….

(AHT at 137.) The special education teacher also testified that Jack used a behavioral checklist to increase self-awareness and that Jack discussed the checklist with his regular education teachers. (AHT at 138-39.)

         The transcript indicates that Jack's regular education teachers were aware of Jack's IEP when it officially came into effect in April, 2016, took part in implementing the April IEP, and were responsive to Jack's behavioral issues. (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 69-74.)

         ii. Seventh Grade Implementation

         The Hearing Officer's decision cites to testimony from Jack's special and regular education teachers and Jack's occupational therapist who took part in the implementation of the April IEP during Jack's seventh grade year.[5] (H.O. Rpt., ¶¶ 69-79.)

         Jack's seventh grade special education teacher testified that she was responsible for monitoring Jack's progress on the April IEP goals and pulled Jack from his Language Arts class on a daily basis for instruction in writing and organization. (AHT at 173-74.) Additionally, she checked Jack's locker ...


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