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Roark v. District of Columbia

October 25, 2006


The opinion of the court was delivered by: John D. Bates United States District Judge


Plaintiffs, Melissa Roark and her parents, Robert Roark and Abigail Arnold, bring this action against the District of Columbia and the Superintendent of the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA" or "the Act"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1482.*fn1 They challenge an administrative determination for the 2005-2006 school year denying them tuition reimbursement following placement of Melissa at the McLean School ("McLean") in Potomac, Maryland, instead of the approved program at The Lab School of Washington ("The Lab School") in the District of Columbia, where she had been for several years. Now pending before the Court are plaintiffs' and defendants' cross-motions for summary judgment. For the reasons explained below, the Court grants defendants' motion for summary judgment and denies plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment.


Under the IDEA, all states, including the District of Columbia, that receive federal educational assistance must establish policies and procedures to ensure that "a free appropriate public education [FAPE]*fn2 is available to all children with disabilities residing in the State . . . ." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A); 34 C.F.R. § 300.1(a); accord D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 5, § 3000.1 (2006). Once a child has been evaluated and found to be learning disabled, DCPS is required to create an individualized education program (IEP) for the child. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(2); 34 C.F.R. § 300.342(a). Federal law requires that these IEPs be developed by an IEP team, consisting of the child's parents, regular and special education teachers, a representative of the school district, persons who can interpret the evaluation results, and the child, if appropriate. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(B); 34 C.F.R. § 300.344(a); D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 5, § 3003.1 (2006); see Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988). An IEP is a detailed document describing a child's present educational level, establishing annual educational goals and objectives, prescribing specific special educational and related services, and explaining the extent to which the child will be taught in a regular education classroom.*fn3 20 U.S.C § 1414(d)(1)(A); 34 C.F.R. § 300.347(a); D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 5, § 3009 (2006); see Honig, 484 U.S. at 311.

In order to implement the IEP, a team that includes the child's parents determines where the child shall be placed. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(f); 34 C.F.R. § 300.552. When selecting an appropriate educational placement, preference is given to the least restrictive environment and the appropriate schools nearest the child's home. Id.; D.C. Mun. Regs. tit. 5, § 3013.1 (2006). If a public school can not provide the services the child needs, DCPS is required to place the child at a private school and pay the child's tuition expenses. Sch. Comm. of Burlington v. Dep't of Educ., 471 U.S. 359, 369 (1985).

If a parent disagrees with the IEP, he or she has a right to a "due process hearing" before an impartial hearing officer, which shall be conducted by a state or local educational agency. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1). Any party aggrieved by the decision of the hearing officer may bring a civil action challenging the decision. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A).


Melissa Roark is a sixteen-year-old student at the McLean School, a private day school in Potomac, Maryland. Pls.' Statement of Material Facts ¶ 1, 10; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 1, 10. Her parents unilaterally placed Melissa there at the start of the 2005-2006 school year because they believed McLean was a more appropriate school for Melissa and that DCPS was required to place her there pursuant to the IDEA. Pls.' Statement of Material Facts ¶ 10; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 10; A.R. 48. It is undisputed that Melissa has benefitted from studying at McLean. Pls.' Statement of Material Facts ¶ 10; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 10.

Melissa has educational disabilities that entitle her to receive special education and related services under the IDEA. Pls.' Statement of Material Facts ¶ 1; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 1. Prior to enrolling at McLean, Melissa attended The Lab School, a private, special education day school in the District of Columbia for students with learning disabilities. Pls.' Statement of Material Facts ¶ 3; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 3; A.R. 80. DCPS placed and funded Melissa at The Lab School for several years in order to implement her annual IEP. Pls.' Statement of Material Facts ¶ 2; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 2. Her IEPs for the academic years covering 2003-2004, 2004-2005, and 2005-2006 all reached the same conclusion: "[Melissa's] pervasive learning disabilities impede acquisition of academic skills and the ability to learn and complete assignments in the general education curriculum. A self-contained, intensive, individualized, remedial special education program will allow academic and social/emotional growth." A.R. 103, 135, 167. Melissa's IEPs increased the amount of time she spent in special education classrooms from 30.5 hours a week in 2003-2004 to 33.5 hours a week in 2005-2006. A.R. 82, 142. Each year, Melissa's IEPs specifically rejected placing her in a general education classroom and, instead, required Melissa to be placed full-time in special education classrooms. A.R. 104, 135, 167. It is undisputed that Melissa thrived at The Lab School. Defs.' Statement of Material Facts ¶¶ 13-14; Pls.' Resp. ¶¶ 13-14. There, she earned a 3.8 grade point average for the 2004-2005 school year and received "glowing reports" from all of her teachers. A.R. 59-69.

Melissa's IEP for the 2005-2006 school year was developed on March 10, 2005 at a meeting attended by members of The Lab School staff and Melissa's parents. Pls.' Statement of Material Facts ¶ 5; Defs.' Resp. ¶ 5. This IEP is a 28-page document that describes in detail Melissa's academic, speech and language, and occupational therapy test scores; outlines Melissa's specific academic and personal goals for the year; and prescribes her curricular requirements and needs. A.R. 82-109. This most recent IEP categorizes Melissa's needs as "high" and states that the IEP team determined that Melissa should be educated "out of the general classroom" by "special educators and related service providers" "between 61% and 100% of service time." A.R. 104. The IEP provides for implementation of its provisions at The Lab School. See A.R. 103 (listing The Lab School as both the attending and the managing school); A.R. 107 (requesting transportation between Melissa's home and The Lab School). Melissa's parents do not dispute the validity and appropriateness of this IEP or the ability of The Lab School to implement it. A.R. 193. There is no evidence in the record to suggest that anyone objected to the IEP or to placement at The Lab School when the IEP was developed on March 10, 2005.

Three month's later, plaintiffs' counsel faxed and mailed the following three-sentence letter to DCPS on June 16, 2005:

We represent the family of Melissa Roark, currently a DCPS-funded student at The Lab School of Washington. Melissa's parents have determined that she would be more appropriately placed at the McLean School, and have secured her placement there. By this notice, we are requesting that DCPS place and fund Melissa at McLean for the upcoming school year.

A.R. 48.*fn4

DCPS did not reply to plaintiffs' counsel's letter and six weeks after the letter was sent, the Roarks filed a due process administrative complaint pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6). A.R. 9-12. The due process complaint alleged that DCPS had denied Melissa a FAPE by failing to respond to counsel's letter, convene an IEP team to consider Melissa's placement, and, ultimately, place Melissa at McLean. A.R. 11. Both parties participated in a resolution session, which was held on August 10, 2005. A.R. 18-21. There, DCPS offered to hold an IEP meeting prior to the start of the 2005-2006 school year during which placement would be discussed; however, the parties could not reach an agreement. A.R. 20. Plaintiffs then filed their pre-hearing disclosure statement documenting the evidence they intended to introduce (primarily Melissa's Lab School records, including IEP documents) and identifying their witnesses. A.R. 41-172. DCPS did not submit a disclosure statement. The parties then agreed to file cross-motions for summary decision without a hearing. A.R. 174-194.

On November 14, 2005, the Hearing Officer denied the Roarks' motion for summary decision and dismissed the case. A.R. 1-7. The Hearing Officer's Determination ("HOD") found that Melissa's IEP was appropriate, that her placement at The Lab School afforded her educational benefits, and that the Roarks had failed to request an IEP team meeting to discuss concerns with the implementation of Melissa's IEP and her placement at The Lab School. A.R. 3, 7. The Roarks filed the current action for judicial review of the HOD on December 13, 2005 pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). The parties' cross-motions for summary judgment, which are now ripe for resolution, followed.


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