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Janet Walker, et al v. District of Columbia

May 20, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: James E. Boasberg United States District Judge


After placing their son A.W. in a private school following the District of Columbia's failure to provide him with a free and appropriate public education, Plaintiffs Janet and Michael Walker filed an administrative action to recover tuition and other benefits. The hearing officer awarded some tuition reimbursement, but no compensatory education benefits. As a result, the Walkers brought this suit on behalf of A.W. under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., challenging the hearing officer's decision. As is typical in IDEA cases, the parties have now filed cross motions for summary judgment.*fn1


A. The IDEA Statutory Framework

The purpose of the IDEA is "to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education (FAPE) that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs . . . ." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). "Implicit" in the IDEA's guarantee "is the requirement that the education to which access is provided be sufficient to confer some educational benefit upon the handicapped child." Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 200 (1982). As a condition of receiving funding under the IDEA, school districts are required to adopt procedures to ensure appropriate educational placement of disabled students. See20 U.S.C. § 1413. A student's eligibility for a FAPE under the IDEA is determined by the results of testing and evaluating the student, and the findings of a "multidisciplinary team" (MDT) or "individualized education program team." § 1414. Such a team consists of the parents and teachers of the disabled student, as well as other educational specialists, who meet and confer in a collaborative process to determine how best to accommodate the needs of the student and provide a FAPE. See § 1414(d)(1)(B).

School districts must also develop a comprehensive plan, known as an individualized education program (IEP), for meeting the special educational needs of each disabled student. See§ 1414(d)(2)(A). The IEP must be formulated in accordance with the terms of the IDEA and "should be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade." Rowley, 458 U.S. at 204. "If no suitable public school is available, the school system must pay the costs of sending the child to an appropriate private school." Reid ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 519 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (citation and alterations omitted). The IDEA requires IEPs to include, among other things:

[1] A statement of the child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance, including . . . how the child's disability affects the child's involvement and progress in the general education curriculum; [2] a statement of measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals, designed to . . . meet the child's needs that result from the child's disability to enable the child to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum . . . [and] meet each of the child's other educational needs that result from the child's disability; [3] a description of how the child's progress toward meeting the[se] annual goals . . . will be measured; [and 4] a statement of the special education and related services and supplementary aids and services . . . to be provided to the child, or on behalf of the child, and a statement of the program modifications or supports for school personnel that will be provided for the child. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i).

The IDEA requires that children with disabilities be placed in the "least restrictive environment" so that they can be educated in an integrated setting with children who are not disabled to the maximum extent appropriate. See§ 1412(a)(5)(A). The IDEA also guarantees parents of disabled children the opportunity to participate in the evaluation and placement process. See§§ 1414(f), 1415(b)(1). Parents who object to their child's "identification, evaluation, or educational placement" are entitled to an impartial due process hearing, see§§ 1415(b)(6), (f)(1), at which they have a "right to be accompanied and advised by counsel" and a "right to present evidence and confront, cross-examine, and compel the attendance of witnesses." § 1415(h). A qualified impartial hearing officer conducts the due process hearing in accordance with the Act. 5 D.C. Mun. Regs. § 3030.1.

Parents "aggrieved by" a hearing officer's findings and decision may bring a civil action in either state or federal court. § 1415(i)(2); 5 D.C. Mun. Regs. § 3031.5. The district court has remedial authority under the Act and broad discretion to grant "such relief as the court determines is appropriate" under the IDEA as guided by the goals of the Act. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii). That remedial authority includes tuition reimbursement for parents who unilaterally place their child in private school, see § 1412(a)(10)(C)(ii), and compensatory education "'to remedy what might be termed an educational deficit created by an educational agency's failure over a given period of time to provide a FAPE.'" Reid, 401 F.3d at 523 (quoting G. ex rel. RG v. Fort Bragg Dependent Schs., 343 F.3d 295, 309 (4th Cir. 2003)).

B. A.W.'s Education

A.W. is a five-year-old learning disabled student who currently attends the National Children's Research Center (NCRC). A.W. suffers from epilepsy, developmental and cognitive delay, and a speech disability. Admin. Record at 9 (Hearing Officer Decision). After several rounds of evaluations, the District of Columbia determined that A.W. was eligible for special education and related services under the IDEA in January 2009. Id. As a result, an MDT team was convened and an initial IEP was developed on January 13, 2009. Id. at 10. The IEP included "annual goals in the areas of math, communication/speech and language, and health/physical." Id. The IEP required the following special education and related services outside of the general education setting each week: (1) specialized instruction for 10 hours; (2) physical therapy for 30 minutes; and (3) speech-language pathology for 1 hour. Id.

A.W.'s neighborhood school is Shepherd Elementary, but that school advised Plaintiffs that it could not implement his IEP. Id. at 11. The District therefore recommended -- and A.W. initially attended -- Takoma Educational Center. Id. A.W.'s time there, however, was short-lived because Takoma failed to properly implement his IEP. Id. From his arrival in February 2009 until April 2009, A.W. received no physical therapy services. Id. Some, but not all, of the missed services were made up through double-time sessions in late April and early May 2009. Id. Takoma, moreover, failed to provide any specialized instruction outside of the general education setting for A.W., as required by his IEP. Id. Transportation services were inconsistent and late. Id. at 12. Finally, speech and language services were only provided during the regular school year, and not during the extended school year as required. Id.

After a number of complaints about A.W.'s education at Takoma, Plaintiffs unilaterally moved him to NCRC for the 2009-10 school year. Id. Because of his age, A.W. only attended school half of the day. At NCRC, A.W. received speech/language assistance and specialized instruction, but physical therapy services were not -- and could not be -- provided by the school. Plaintiffs informed Defendants of his new placement on September 21, 2009, and requested that Defendants ensure the delivery of all the related services in A.W.'s IEP. Id. Two weeks later, Plaintiffs again sent notice to Defendants that A.W. was attending NCRC. Id. at 121. In that notice, Plaintiffs first requested tuition reimbursement for NCRC. Id. at 122.

On October 14, 2009, Plaintiffs filed a due process complaint alleging that the District had failed to provide appropriate placement for A.W. for the 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years and had thus failed to provide A.W. with a FAPE. Id. at 24 (Due Process Complaint). Plaintiffs sought a number of remedies, including reimbursement for NCRC; arrangement of related services that NCRC did not provide -- e.g., physical therapy -- new ...

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