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Olu-Cole v. E.L. Haynes Public Charter School

United States District Court, District of Columbia

February 23, 2018

VELMA OLU-COLE, Parent and next friend of M.K. Plaintiff,


          TREVOR N. MCFADDEN United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Velma Olu-Cole, on behalf of her minor son M.K., seeks a preliminary injunction against defendant E.L. Haynes Public Charter School (“Haynes” or the “School”) “from continuing to violate the Individuals with Disability Improvement Act's (‘IDEA') stay put provision.” Mem. of P. & A. in Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. for a Preliminary Injunction (“Mot. for Prelim. Injunction”) 3, ECF No. 4-1. Ms. Olu-Cole's son, M.K., is a 17 year old student classified under the IDEA as having an emotional disturbance disability. Compl. ¶ 5. Pursuant to this classification, M.K. is entitled to receive educational services personalized to his needs, as well as to certain procedural protections in the event that the School unilaterally excludes him from campus. See id. ¶¶ 11-12; 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(j), (k)(1)(G). In November 2017, M.K. physically attacked a fellow student. Compl. ¶ 13. Haynes subsequently suspended M.K. for 45 days. Id. ¶ 31. Now that the 45 day period has elapsed, Ms. Olu-Cole seeks a preliminary injunction against Haynes' continued exclusion of M.K. from campus, which she alleges violates his individualized education program by depriving him of the ability to interact with his peers. Mot. for Prelim. Injunction 16. Though a preliminary injunction is “presumptive[]” in IDEA stay put cases upon meeting a two part inquiry, Eley v. D.C., 47 F.Supp.3d 1, 8 (D.D.C. 2014), the presumption can be overcome if a different result is warranted through application of the traditional four part test. Laster v. D.C., 439 F.Supp. 2d. 93, 99 (D.D.C. 2006). Applying the traditional test for preliminary injunctions, I find that although the IDEA's stay put provision and implementing regulations may otherwise require M.K.'s attendance at Haynes, M.K. will not suffer irreparable harm through denial of the relief requested, that granting the relief may injure other interested parties, and that the public interest weighs strongly in favor of the School. Accordingly, the Plaintiff's motion will be denied.

         I. Background

         A. The IDEA and its Stay Put Provision

         The IDEA requires states and local educational agencies (“LEAs”)-i.e., schools-which accept federal funding to provide a “free appropriate public education” for disabled children. Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 307, 308 (1988) (discussing the Education of the Handicapped Act, now enacted as the IDEA). This includes the development and implementation of an individualized education program (“IEP”) for each disabled child, with 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 educational curriculum.” 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A). This also includes certain procedural protections, such as a parent's or a school's right to an administrative hearing if the parent or school disagrees with a placement decision, and the so-called “stay put” provision, which provides that during an administrative or judicial proceeding, the child shall remain in his “current educational placement.” See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1415(j), (k)(3); see also 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.518, 300.532 (implementing regulations). The scheme as a whole reflects congressional recognition that disabled children had been commonly “excluded from the public school system altogether [or] ‘warehoused' in special classes or were neglectfully shepherded through the system until they were old enough to drop out.” Hong, 484 U.S. at 308.

         B. Factual Background

         M.K. is a 17 year old male student at Haynes who is eligible for special education and related services under the IDEA under the emotional disturbance classification. Compl. ¶ 5. His current IEP provides that he receive seven hours a week of specialized instruction within the general education setting, 30 hours per week of counseling outside the general education setting, and two hours a year of consultative occupational therapy. Id. ¶ 11. Thus, M.K.'s IEP contemplates that he spend approximately 98% of his school instruction in a general education setting. Id. ¶ 12.

         For the last three months, however, M.K. has been in an “interim alternative educational setting, ” off of School grounds, due to a violent incident on November 6, 2017. See Compl. ¶ 13. According to M.K.'s mother, the incident began when M.K. allegedly “snatched a juice box” from another student, prompting the other student to grab it back. Id. M.K. then pushed the student, who fell down. Id. M.K. “repeatedly” punched the student in the head, resulting in the student suffering a concussion. Id. Although a Manifestation Determination Review panel determined that M.K.'s behavior was a manifestation of his disability, id ¶ 14, Haynes suspended M.K. from school for 45 days for his conduct. Id. ¶ 31. Since then, M.K. has received homebound education through tutors. Id. ¶ 34.

         On January 11, 2018, Haynes convened a change in placement meeting with the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (“OSSE”) to seek approval to transfer M.K. to a different school, which was denied. Id. ¶¶ 35, 37. On January 24, 2018, after nearly serving his 45 day suspension, M.K. attempted to return to Haynes, which refused to admit him. Id. ¶ 40. The following day, on January 25, Haynes filed a due process complaint with OSSE's Office of Dispute Resolution seeking to change M.K.'s placement to another school. Id. ¶ 43. A determination in the administrative hearing is expected on or around March 9, 2018. Mot. for Prelim. Injunction 15. Since the 45 day period elapsed on January 31, 2018, M.K. has remained at home. See Mot. for Prelim. Injunction 15 n.5.

         On February 1, 2018, Ms. Olu-Cole filed her complaint and accompanying motions for a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction, seeking that I order Haynes to accept M.K. back on campus during the pendency of the due process hearing. Compl. 12. After hearing oral argument on the motions on February 2, 2018, I denied the motion for a temporary restraining order. Minute Order, Feb. 2, 2018. Following an expedited briefing schedule and a further motions hearing held on February 13, 2018, the motion for a preliminary injunction is now ripe for resolution.

         II. Legal Standard

         A movant invoking the stay put provision is “presumptively entitled” to an injunction upon a showing that that: (1) proceedings under the IDEA are pending; and (2) a change in the “then-current educational placement” of the disabled child is sought. Eley, 47 F.Supp.3d at 8. The school, however, may “overcome the presumption if it can demonstrate that application of the traditional four part preliminary injunction test warrants a different result.” Laster, 439 F.Supp. 2d. at 99 (citing Honig, 484 U.S. at 327; Henry v. Sch. Admin. Unit No. 29, 70 F.Supp.2d 52, 58 n.5 (D.N.H. 1999)). The traditional four-part test examines whether the Plaintiff has a substantial likelihood of success on the merits, the likelihood that irreparable harm will occur in the absence of the relief sought, the balance of equities (i.e., that an injunction would not substantially injure other interested parties), and the public interest. Spencer v. D.C., 416 F.Supp.2d 5, 8 (D.D.C. 2006). The factors are balanced against each other and in making its determination, the court looks to “all four factors, taken together.” Davis v. Pension Benefit Guar. Corp., 571 F.3d 1288, 1292 (D.C. Cir. 2009).

         III. Regulatory Scheme

         As this matter involves a twist on a typical stay put case insofar as it intertwines IDEA's provisions regarding a request for a change in placement with those governing disciplinary proceedings, I begin with an analysis of the applicable regulatory scheme. The IDEA's stay put provision, as ...

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