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District of Columbia v. Walker

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 12, 2015

DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Plaintiff,
v.
MICHAEL WALKER, Defendant.

OPINION

ROSEMARY M. COLLYER, District Judge.

Michael Walker is the father of J.W., a disabled child. J.W. is eligible to receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1487. A Hearing Officer found that the individualized educational program (IEP) that the District of Columbia created for J.W. complied with the statute, but that the IEP should be amended to include a residential school placement based on a psychiatrist's recommendation. The District of Columbia moves for summary judgment, seeking to vacate partially the Hearing Officer's Decision. The District was unaware of the psychiatrist's recommendation at the time it created the IEP. Mr. Walker seeks to affirm the Hearing Officer's Decision and to compel the District of Columbia to reimburse him for J.W.'s residential placement at a boarding school, the Asheville Academy for Girls.

I. FACTS

A. Statutory Framework

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., "aims to ensure that every child has a meaningful opportunity to benefit from public education." Boose v. District of Columbia, No. 14-7086, 2015 WL 3371818, at *1 (D.C. Cir. May 26, 2015). The statute ensures that "all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education [or FAPE] that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living." 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). Under IDEA, school systems must promptly identify, locate, and evaluate every child with disabilities residing in the district who is in need of special education and related services. Id. § 1412(a)(3)(A). When a disabled child is identified, the child's parents, teachers, school officials, and other professionals collaborate in an "IEP team" to develop an individualized educational program (IEP) to meet the child's unique needs. See id. §§ 1412(a)(4), 1414(d)(1)(B). The IEP is a written statement that includes goals and instructional objectives for the student's education, services to be provided, projections regarding the dates on which such services are to be offered, and criteria for evaluating whether instructional objectives are met. Id. §§ 1401(14), 1414(d)(1)(A). The IEP team may determine that in order to benefit from special education, the student requires "related services"- i.e., non-educational, supportive services such as physical and occupational therapy and psychological counseling. See id. § 1414(d)(1)(B); 34 C.F.R. § 300.24(a). "[T]he IEP must, at a minimum, provide personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction.... 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). A disabled child can be reevaluated if the school determines it is warranted to meet the child's needs or if the child's parent or teacher requests a reevaluation. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(a)(2)(A). A reevaluation "shall occur (1) not more frequently than once a year, unless the parent and the [school] agree otherwise; and at least once every 3 years, unless the parent and the [school] agree that a reevaluation is unnecessary." Id. § 1414(a)(2)(B).

To determine whether a FAPE has been provided, courts must determine whether:

(1) the school complied with the IDEA's procedures; and (2) the IEP developed through those procedures was reasonably calculated to enable the student to receive educational benefits. Loren F. v. Atlanta Indep. Sch. Sys., 349 F.3d 1309, 1312 (11th Cir. 2003). While the District of Columbia is required to provide disabled students a FAPE, it is not required to, and does not guarantee, any particular outcome or any particular level of academic success. See Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 192 (1982); Dorros v. District of Columbia, 510 F.Supp.2d 97, 100 (D.D.C. 2007). If a parent objects to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of a disabled child, or whether she is receiving a FAPE, the parent may seek a due process hearing before a D.C. Hearing Officer, who issues a determination known as a Hearing Officer Decision or HOD. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(b)(6), 1415(f)(1)(A). If a party is dissatisfied with that decision, it may appeal to a state court or a federal district court. See id. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

B. Background

J.W. is an eleven-year-old student with significant social emotional issues; she has had five psychiatric hospitalizations since October 2012. Administrative Record (AR) [Dkt. 5] at 7-8. The October 2012 hospitalization was precipitated by an incident during which J.W. experienced command hallucinations to harm herself and her younger twin brothers and she attempted to push the twins down a flight of stairs. AR at 7. At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, J.W. attended St. Patrick's Episcopal Day School, a private non-special education school in the District of Columbia.[1] Id. at 8. Due to significant psychiatric issues, her father obtained an independent psychological evaluation and, on September 18, 2013, J.W. was diagnosed with "Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Disruptive Mood Disorder, Specific Learning Disorder with Impairment in Mathematics with impaired accuracy and fluency of calculations, moderate severity, Language Disorder, and Reactive Attachment Disorder." Id.

Based on this psychological evaluation, on November 20, 2013, Mr. Walker requested that the District identify J.W. as a student with a disability and provide her with an IEP. Id. Soon thereafter, J.W.'s mental health deteriorated and she was hospitalized. After her release from the hospital, on January 23, 2014, Mr. Walker unilaterally placed J.W. at a private boarding school, Asheville Academy for Girls, located Asheville, North Carolina. Id. The Asheville Academy has not been approved by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) as a residential treatment facility, and it has not been approved by its own state, North Carolina, for special education placement. HOD 10/14/14 [Dkt. 6-1] at 8.

On March 24, 2014, Mr. Walker filed a due process complaint against District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), alleging that the District failed to identify J.W. as a disabled student in need of educational services. Compl. [Dkt. 1] ¶ 10. The due process complaint resulted in a May 28, 2014 Hearing Officer Decision, which ordered the District to determine J.W.'s eligibility and to develop an IEP by June 30, 2014. See id. ¶ 14; HOD 5/28/14 [Dkt. 6-2] at 10.

On June 16, 2014, the parties convened an eligibility meeting, and J.W. was found to be disabled and eligible for services under IDEA. Compl. ¶ 16. On June 27, 2014, three days before the June 30 deadline, the District developed an IEP for J.W. The IEP consisted of goals, services, and accommodations, including 26.5 hours of specialized instruction outside of a general education setting and 240 minutes of counseling per month. Id. ¶ 17; HOD 10/14/14 at 2. DCPS proposed to place J.W. in a program for students with emotional and behavioral difficulties located at a DCPS middle school. HOD 10/14/14 at 2. On July 8 and again on July 28, 2014, Mr. Walker wrote to the District, complaining that J.W.'s placement was inappropriate. Id. He sent the District a July 22, 2014, letter from J.W.'s treating psychiatrist in Asheville, Dr. Sarah Wells. In her letter, Dr. Wells stated:

[I]t is my strong opinion that [J.W.] requires ongoing residential treatment. She has had numerous behavioral concerns and issues with medication compliance. She has also suffered from psychotic symptoms and dissociation.... She was unable to maintain normal functioning in an ...

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