The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosemary M. Collyer United States District Judge
N.T. is a young child with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder ("ADHD"). She is currently attending a private school that educates disabled children, and her parents want the District to pay for the tuition and costs of the school. The question is whether the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") can provide N.T. a free, appropriate public education ("FAPE") and, if not, to what extent it must reimburse N.T.'s parents for her private school placement. Because DCPS can provide N.T. a free and appropriate education, the Court will deny Plaintiffs' request for reimbursement and grant Defendant's motion for summary judgment.
From pre-kindergarten through the end of first grade, N.T. attended The River School in Northwest Washington, D.C. The River School is an "inclusion"-based private school meaning that children with special educational needs who attend the school spend most of their time learning with non-disabled students. N.T. was not initially placed in The River School as a child with special educational needs and did not have an Individualized Education Program ("IEP") during any of the five years she attended The River School.*fn1 At The River School, N.T. was placed in small classes with approximately fourteen students, and the students were regularly taught in smaller groups of one to four children.
During her first grade year (from 2008-2009), N.T. struggled academically and socially. The River School recommended that N.T. repeat the first grade, and she did so. That fall (in 2009), N.T.'s parents referred her to a psychologist for a neuropsychological assessment. The psychologist diagnosed N.T. with ADHD. N.T. was able to make some progress academically and socially, but she continued to struggle academically, had difficulty with her peers, and was frequently physically aggressive. Accordingly, her parents began to look at other school options -- both public and private. Her parents visited Key Elementary School, the local public school N.T. would otherwise have attended. Her parents met with the principal, classroom teachers, and special education coordinator at Key Elementary. On April 23, 2010, N.T.'s parents initiated a referral to DCPS to evaluate N.T.'s eligibility for special education services.
In addition to visiting Key Elementary, N.T.'s parents also looked at The Lab School of Washington, a private school that serves moderately to severely disabled students. In the same month that N.T.'s parents initiated a referral to DCPS, they also signed an enrollment contract and paid a deposit toward The Lab School's annual tuition. As early as April 2010, after having met multiple times with Key Elementary staff, N.T.'s parents decided to send her to The Lab School.
On August 13, 2010, DCPS convened an IEP meeting to determine N.T.'s eligibility under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., for special education services. N.T.'s parents, educational consultant, and attorney attended the meeting along with a DCPS psychologist, social worker, speech/language pathologist, general education teacher, and special education teachers. The IEP team reviewed N.T.'s evaluations and data and found her eligible for special education services based upon her ADHD diagnosis. The team also decided that additional assessments were required to determine if N.T. would qualify as a student with a specific learning disability. An educational assessment, occupational therapy assessment, and classroom observation were ordered. The additional assessments were completed without incident except that, based upon The Lab School's guidelines, only the occupational therapist from DCPS (and not the special education coordinator, speech pathologist or psychologist) was able to conduct a classroom evaluation. When the IEP team met on August 13th, N.T.'s mother had already decided that N.T. would attend The Lab School and wanted DCPS to pay for that unilateral private placement.
On October 13, 2010, DCPS convened a follow up meeting and proposed an IEP for the 2010-2011 school year. DCPS proposed that N.T. receive education in a general education setting of fourteen hours per month of written expression, two hours per month of speech language pathology, and one hour per month of behavioral support services. DCPS further proposed six hours of written expression, two hours of speech language pathology, and one hour of behavioral support services per month outside a general education setting. The IEP did not include a requirement that N.T. be educated in smaller class sizes or provide for occupational therapy or other services Plaintiffs desired. Plaintiffs rejected the IEP at the October 13, 2010 meeting and indicated that they planned to continue N.T.'s placement at The Lab School at DCPS' expense.
Two weeks later, Plaintiffs filed a request for an administrative due process hearing alleging that DCPS had denied N.T. a free, appropriate public education and seeking reimbursement from DCPS for the tuition and costs of The Lab School. Specifically, Plaintiffs presented five issues to be resolved at the hearing:
1. Whether DCPS failed to complete a special education evaluation and IEP development within IDEA timelines;
2. Whether the omission of goals and services for reading, mathematics, social and occupational therapy in the IEP was a denial of a FAPE;
3. Whether the Speech-Language services in the IEP were inadequate to provide a FAPE;
4. Whether the proposed provision of IEP services in a general education setting was a denial of a FAPE; and
5. Whether N.T.'s placement at The Lab School is proper under the IDEA. The hearing was held in early January 2011, and the Hearing Officer found for DCPS on four of the five issues. With respect to Issue # 4, whether the IEP's proposed services in the general education setting denied N.T. a FAPE, the Hearing Officer concluded that N.T. needed a small group setting for all of her core academic subjects. Although DCPS' special educational coordinator testified that N.T. would be instructed in small groups at her level at Key Elementary, the Hearing Officer found that the requirement for small group instruction in core academic subjects needed to be explicit in the IEP. The Hearing Officer ordered DCPS to reconvene N.T.'s IEP team and develop an IEP that provided for small group settings for core subjects. Although the IEP deprived N.T. of a FAPE, the Hearing Officer did not order reimbursement for private-school tuition because the ...