United States District Court, District of Columbia
RENEE MIDDLETON, Plaintiff.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, et al. Defendants.
MEMORANDUM OPINION GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN
PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT; GRANTING IN
PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT'S CROSS-MOTION FOR
RUDOLPH CONTRERAS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Renee Middleton appeals from a final administrative decision
that partly rejected her claim that District of Columbia
Public Schools (“DCPS”) violated the Individuals
with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) by
failing to provide her son A.T. with a free appropriate
public education. Before the Court are the parties'
cross-motions for summary judgment. Finding that DCPS fell
short of meeting its obligations under the IDEA-primarily by
virtue of its unilateral decision to place A.T. in
programming inappropriate for his capabilities and needs, a
root-deep error that marred other aspects of the formation
and implementation of A.T.'s IEPs -the Court grants in
part and denies in part both parties' motions and remands
this case to the hearing officer for further proceedings
consistent with this Opinion.
enacting the IDEA, Congress sought to protect the rights of
children with disabilities and parents of such children and
to “ensure that all children with disabilities have
available to them a free appropriate public education.”
20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A), (B). A free appropriate
public education, or FAPE, includes “special
education” (defined by the Act as “specially
designed instruction . . . to meet the unique needs of a
child with a disability”) and “related
services” (defined as “transportation, and such
developmental, corrective, and other supportive services . .
. as may be required to assist a child with a disability to
benefit from special education”). Id. §
1401(9), (26), (29). Special education and related services
must also “meet the standards of the State educational
agency.” Id. § 1401(9)(B).
determined eligible for special education and services under
the IDEA receive an “individualized educational
program, ” or IEP. Id. § 1401(9)(D),
(14). “The IEP is the means by which special education
and related services are ‘tailored to the unique
needs' of a particular child.” Endrew F. ex
rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist., RE-1, 137
S.Ct. 988, 994 (2017) (quoting Bd. of Ed. of Hendrick
Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458
U.S. 176, 181 (1982)). Prepared by an “IEP
Team”-composed of the child's parents or guardians,
the child's teacher, a representative of a local
educational agency, and, whenever appropriate, the child, 20
U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(B)-the IEP sets out the child's
present academic and functional performance, establishes
measurable academic and functional goals for the child, and
states the special education and related services that will
be provided for the child. Id. § 1414(d)(1)(A).
For children who are sixteen years old or older, the IEP must
also include “appropriate measurable postsecondary
goals based upon age appropriate transition
assessments” and an explanation of the transition
services necessary to assist the child in reaching those
goals. Id. § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(VIII). The IEP
Team reviews the child's IEP at least annually.
Id. § 1414(d)(4)(A)(i). And the IEP Team may
revise the IEP as appropriate to address the child's
anticipated needs, any lack of expected progress toward
annual goals, and other matters. Id. §
1414(d)(4)(A)(ii). At a minimum, the IEP must be
“reasonably calculated to enable [the] child to make
progress appropriate in light of the child's
circumstances.” Endrew F., 137 S.Ct. at 999.
Additionally, the IDEA requires that “to the maximum
extent appropriate, children with disabilities . . . are
educated with children who are not disabled.” 20 U.S.C.
§ 1412 (a)(5)(A). Courts in this jurisdiction have
concluded that an IEP Team is required to discuss a
student's specific “Least Restrictive
Environment” (“LRE”) and that the IEP is
required to include at least a brief description of the
child's LRE. Brown v. District of Columbia, 179
F.Supp.3d 15, 26-28 (D.D.C. 2016).
that schools had all too often denied [children with
disabilities] appropriate educations without in any way
consulting their parents, Congress repeatedly emphasized
throughout the Act the importance and indeed the necessity of
parental participation in both the development of the IEP and
any subsequent assessments of its effectiveness.”
Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988). To that end,
the IDEA establishes procedural safeguards that provide
parents with “both an opportunity for meaningful input
into all decisions affecting their child's education and
the right to seek review of any decisions they think
inappropriate.” Id. at 311-12. Furthermore,
the IDEA provides only baseline standards. See
Rowley, 458 U.S. at 200. States may afford additional
procedural and substantive protections, so long as those
requirements are not inconsistent with the IDEA. See G.
ex rel. Ssgt RG v. Fort Bragg Dependent Schs., 324 F.3d
240, 249 (4th Cir. 2003). In that vein, the District of
Columbia-which is a State for purposes of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C.
§ 1401(31)-offers some procedural safeguards that exceed
the federal standards. See, e.g., D.C. Code §
38-2571.03. Notably, “[i]f state legislation
implementing IDEA creates a higher standard than the federal
minimum, an individual may bring an action under the federal
statute seeking to enforce the state standard.”
Gill v. Columbia 93 Sch. Dist., 217 F.3d 1027, 1035
(8th Cir. 2000); see also 20 U.S.C. § 1401(9)
(defining a FAPE as, among other things, special education
and related services that “meet the standards of the
State educational agency”).
parent may lodge a due process complaint to challenge the
school district's provision of a FAPE based on either
procedural or substantive violations of the IDEA and may
demand an “impartial due process hearing.” 20
U.S.C. § 1415 (b)(6), (f)(1). At that hearing, the
parties may present evidence and elicit expert testimony
about the child's educational and functional needs.
Id. § 1415(f), (h). After the hearing, the
independent hearing officer (“IHO”) issues a
decision (the “HOD”), evaluating whether the
school district denied the student a FAPE and, if so,
describing any appropriate remedy. See Id. §
1415(f)(3)(E); see also B.D. v. District of
Columbia, 817 F.3d 792, 798 (D.C. Cir. 2016). A parent
aggrieved by the decision may seek review in the appropriate
federal district court. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2).
who was born in 2000 and who resides in the District of
Columbia, is considered a “child with a
disability” under the IDEA. Def.'s Statement of
Material Facts Not in Dispute (“Def.'s
SMFND”) ¶¶ 1-11, ECF No. 13-2; Pl.'s
Statement of Material Facts Not in Dispute (“Pl.'s
SMFND”) ¶ 1, ECF No. 10-2; see 20 U.S.C.
§ 1401(3)(A). For the 2014-2015 school year-A.T.'s
eighth grade year-he was enrolled at Sousa Middle School
(“Sousa”). Def.'s SMFND ¶ 19. At Sousa,
A.T. was placed in a full-time, self-contained class of
eleven students, where he participated in programming geared
toward low functioning students with communication and other
cognitive and achievement deficits. Pl.'s SMFND
¶¶ 2-6. The students in A.T.'s class had
limited interactions with their non-disabled peers and
traveled in a group with an aide any time that they needed to
move to other locations in the building. Pl.'s SMFND
A.T.'s eighth grade year was coming to a close, some
members of his IEP Team- specifically, a special education
teacher, a school representative and assessment evaluator, a
general education teacher, and a speech pathologist,
see IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 343, ECF No.
7-4-convened to revise his IEP in anticipation of his
transition to high school. See Pl.'s SMFND
¶¶ 8-10; Def.'s SMFND ¶ 20; IEP 4/24/2015,
Admin. R. at 343-62. However, neither A.T.'s mother Renee
Middleton nor the family's educational advocate Dr. Ida
Jean Holman was notified of the meeting and neither attended
it. See Pl.'s SMFND ¶¶ 9-10; Testimony
of Ida Jean Holman (“Holman Tr.”), Admin. R. at
1287-88, ECF No. 8-5. Indeed, on May 4, 2015, Dr. Holman
requested a meeting to review A.T.'s progress, and
received no indication that the school had already conducted
its annual IEP review meeting. Holman Tr., Admin. R. at 1288;
Email from Dr. Ida Jean Holman to Nicola Stewart, Admin. R.
at 120. The record contains no notes from the April 2015 IEP
meeting. See Hearing Officer Determination
(“HOD”), Admin. R. at 10; Holman Tr., Admin. R.
developed at the April 2015 meeting listed A.T. as having
multiple disabilities, including Speech-Language Impairment.
IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 343. Consistent with his past
IEPs, it also documented A.T.'s struggles with
mathematics, reading, and writing. At the time that the IEP
was written, A.T.'s standardized test scores in all of
those areas fell within the “very low range.” IEP
4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 345-48. In mathematics, for example,
A.T. performed at the 1.1 grade-level equivalent; in reading,
A.T's assessment stated that “he is unable to read
due to an inability to blend phonetic sounds along with
severe memory retention problems.” IEP 4/24/2015,
Admin. R. at 347. Furthermore, various evaluations revealed
that A.T. had low cognitive functioning. IEP 4/25/2015,
Admin. R. at 349. The April 2015 IEP indicated that
A.T.'s various “deficit[s] and his extreme
struggles with memory retention prevent him from being able
to access the general education curriculum at the 7th grade
level”-a reference to a grade lower than A.T.'s-and
noted that A.T. “require[d] constant assistance,
significant modifications and differentiation to access
curriculum that is significantly below grade level” in
mathematics, reading, and writing. IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R.
April 2015 IEP called for 27 hours per week of specialized
instruction outside of the general education setting. IEP
4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 352. A.T. would also receive 120
minutes per month-30 minutes per week-of speech-language
services. IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 352. This amounts to a
full-time placement in a special education setting. The IEP
acknowledged that A.T. would “benefit from the use of
assistive technology for learning, ” and explained that
A.T. had “been provided an iPad with various programs
for academic use.” IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 352.
With respect to other services, A.T. was deemed eligible for
special education transportation to and from school and for
Extended School Year (“ESY”) programming. IEP
4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 356.
April 2015 IEP also described a post-secondary transition
plan for A.T. See IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at
359-62. According to the document, A.T. expressed an academic
interest in science and employment interests in truck driving
or in “using a cash register, working from 9-5 and
keeping detailed reports.” IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at
359. Upon graduation from high school, A.T. would
“attend a job training program for a job of his
choice.” IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 359. To prepare
A.T. for post-secondary education and training, the IEP
stated that, within the year, A.T. would use the internet to
identify four different locations that offer information on
job training programs. He would also map out how and when he
would visit each location and would present a plan to his
case manager. IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 360. To prepare
A.T. for post-secondary employment, A.T. would identify
traits consistent with individuals who are employed in a 9-5
career, and he would document the knowledge, skills, and
abilities necessary to have a successful career in a 9-5
position. IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 360. Afterward, he
would present his findings to his case manager. The IEP
listed A.T.'s post-secondary employment goal as to
“be employed” upon graduation from high school.
IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 360. Finally, A.T.'s April
2015 IEP listed his “projected exit category” as
“H.S. Diploma, ” rather than either “H.S.
Certificate prior to age 21” or “H.S. Certificate
at age 21.” IEP 4/24/2015, Admin. R. at 362.
the summer before A.T.'s ninth grade year, the special
education coordinator at Sousa advised Ms. Middleton that she
should enroll A.T. at Woodson Senior High School
(“Woodson”), A.T.'s neighborhood school-a
decision apparently made “downtown” rather than
by any members of A.T.'s IEP Team. Pl.'s SMFND ¶
25; Holman Tr., Admin. R. at 1290-91. However, the special
education coordinator did not provide Ms. Middleton or Dr.
Holman with any further information about A.T.'s
placement or about the programming in which he would be
enrolled in high school, despite repeated requests for such
information. See Pl.'s SMFND ¶¶
24-25. Nevertheless, Ms. Middleton enrolled A.T. at Woodson.
Pl.'s SMFND ¶ 25. After A.T. arrived at Woodson-an
arrival delayed several days by confusion about whether
Woodson was in fact the school to which A.T. had been
assigned, see Email from Ida Jean Holman to Lloyd
Bryant (Aug. 27, 2015), Admin. R. at 121-23-Dr. Holman
continued to request information about A.T.'s programming
and asked for a 30-day review meeting to assess A.T.'s
adjustment to the new school. See Admin. R. at
124-28. Several of Dr. Holman's emails went unanswered,
and Ms. Middleton received no immediate clarification about
A.T.'s programming. See Admin. R. at 124-28. In
September and October 2015, through her educational advocate,
Ms. Middleton communicated concerns that A.T. had reportedly
been absent from several classes and had been spending
“a majority of his days wandering the halls of
Woodson.” Admin. R. at 124-25, 128.
October 19, 2015, Ms. Middleton and her educational advocate
met with Woodson school officials. During that meeting, Ms.
Middleton apparently learned that A.T. was enrolled in the
“diploma track” and that he was taking four
“core” courses. See Meeting Notes,
10/19/2015, Admin. R. at 378, ECF No. 7-4. She also learned
that he was taking, among other things, two general education
classes-Music and Physical Education-and an inclusion-style,
twenty-five student World History class, from which A.T. was
periodically removed for specialized instruction in a smaller
group of about seventeen students. See Meeting
Notes, 10/19/2015, Admin. R. at 378. At the meeting, Ms.
Middleton and Dr. Holman also purportedly mentioned their
concerns that Woodson was not properly implementing
A.T.'s IEP. Pl.'s SMFND ¶ 37. Days later, Dr.
Holman sent a follow-up letter to Woodson's special
education coordinator, detailing concerns-namely, that A.T.
was enrolled in two general education courses even though his
IEP called for full-time special education programming, that
his mathematics and English placements did not seem suited
for his level of skill or ability, that A.T. was not
consistently receiving one-to-one instruction, that A.T. had
not been given an iPad or other assistive technology, that
A.T. was consistently failing to eat during his assigned
lunch period, that A.T.'s behavioral plan was not
properly suited to reduce his anxiety, and that A.T. went
from placement in a self-contained class at Sousa to
placement in an integrated program at Woodson without any
attention to Ms. Middleton's views on the matter.
See Letter from Dr. Holman to Ms. Lumumba-Umoja,
(Oct. 23, 2015), Admin. R. at 134-36.
next month, Dr. Holman wrote to Woodson's special
education coordinator to schedule a time to observe A.T. at
school. See Letter from Dr. Holman to Ms.
Lumumba-Umoja (Nov. 9, 2015), Admin. R. at 140. The
coordinator explained that in order to secure approval for
such a visit, Ms. Middleton would have to submit a parental
consent form and Dr. Holman would have to identify the focus
of her proposed observation and submit a signed observer
confidentiality agreement. See Admin. R. at 141-52.
Insisting that several provisions of the confidentiality
agreement violated District of Columbia law, Dr. Holman
refused to sign, even after an attorney for DCPS suggested
that Dr. Holman could sign the form, indicate that she had
signed it “under protest, ” and could
“specify” any provision that she believed
violated the law. See Admin. R. at 148-52. Because
Dr. Holman would not sign the agreement, she was not
permitted to observe A.T. in school. See HOD, Admin.
R. at 30 (listing issue as “[w]hether DCPS denied
[A.T.] a FAPE by preventing Parent's expert from
observing [him] in his current placement”).
the next few months, Dr. Holman reiterated concerns about
A.T.'s programing, A.T.'s attendance issues, and
Woodson's implementation of A.T.'s IEP. See
Admin. R. at 153- 62. During that same period, school
officials apparently repeatedly ignored Dr. Holman's
several requests for A.T.'s school records. See
E-mail from Dr. Holman to Ms. Lumumba- Umoja, Admin. R. at
162 (noting that the email constituted “the fourth or
fifth” request “for the same records”).
February 2016, A.T.'s IEP Team met to revise his IEP.
See IEP 2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 461. Like A.T.'s
April 2015 IEP, his February 2016 IEP indicated that he is
multiply disabled and that he has deficits in writing,
reading, and mathematics. See IEP 2/9/2016, Admin.
R. at 462-69. According to his February 2016 IEP,
“[w]ith consistent prompting, enlistment, small group
instruction and discussion, [A.T.] will attempt daily
classroom assignments after instructions are given.”
IEP 2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 463. And “when taught in a
one-on-one capacity or a very small group, [A.T.] is able to
correctly complete . . . task[s] with fading instructional
support, modeling and extended time.” IEP 2/9/2016,
Admin. R. at 463. However, “[w]hen there is limited
prompting or [A.T.] is expected to complete [a] task
independently, he had episodes of becoming confused and often
ceased from attempting to complete the assignment[s]. IEP
2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 463. A Functional Behavioral
Assessment completed in late February 2016 echoed these
concerns and hypothesized that A.T. is most likely to remain
on task and to participate in the academic environment when
he has an established rapport with the staff, when he feels
confident in his ability to do his work, and when he is in a
small, structured classroom. See Pl.'s SMFND
February 2016 IEP called for 25 hours per week of specialized
instruction (2 hours per week fewer than A.T.'s previous
IEP) and 120 minutes per month of speech language pathology.
IEP 2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 472-73. It also noted that A.T.
would “benefit from the use of assistive technology for
learning.” IEP 2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 472. As in
A.T.'s previous IEP, A.T. was deemed eligible for
transportation services. IEP 2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 476.
However, A.T. was deemed ineligible to participate in ESY
programming. IEP 2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 476. The
post-secondary transition plan included in A.T.'s
February 2016 IEP listed his academic interest as
“art/drawing, ” and his employment interest as
“to work for United Parcel Service.” IEP
2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 477. A.T.'s post-secondary
education and training goal remained to attend “a job
training program for a job of his choice.” IEP
2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 478. To work toward that goal, by
February 2017, A.T. was to identify at least two job training
programs of interest to him. IEP 2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 478.
According to the IEP, A.T.'s employment goal upon
graduation was to “seek employment in an occupation of
interest to him.” IEP 2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 479. By
February 2017, he was to identify two or three career
interests and the requirements for those careers to make
progress toward his goal. IEP 2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 479.
Finally, the February 2016 IEP kept A.T. on the diploma
track. IEP 2/9/2016, Admin. R. at 481.
after the February 2016 IEP meeting, Dr. Holman sent a
follow-up message, which sought clarity regarding whether all
of A.T.'s classes were self-contained. Letter, Admin. R.
at 173-75. Dr. Holman also expressed concern that Woodson had
no plan in place to remediate A.T.'s reading
difficulties; explained that A.T.'s writing and
mathematics goals appeared to be beyond his abilities and
that his reading goals were too vague to be effective; and
offered that A.T.'s behavioral and attendance issues
likely resulted from the inappropriateness of A.T.'s IEP
and placement and his difficulties understanding his
assignments. Letter, Admin. R. at 173-75. Dr. Holman
recommended that Woodson place A.T. in smaller classes and in
a self-contained program. Letter, Admin. R. at 174.
end of 2015-16 school year, A.T. was not promoted to the next
grade because he failed three courses-Biology, Employability
Skills, and Physical Education. Pl.'s SMFND ¶ 86.
A.T.'s school records indicated that he had logged 57
absences during the school year.Pl.'s SMFND ¶ 86.
2016, Ms. Middleton filed an administrative complaint on
behalf of her son. See Admin. Compl., Admin. R. at
611-65. In it, she contended that DCPS had denied A.T. a FAPE
by failing to provide him with an appropriate IEP in April
2015. See Admin. R. at 634-44. Ms. Middleton argued
that A.T.'s April 2015 IEP was inappropriate because it
(1) placed him on the diploma track, (2) focused on common
core grade-level standards rather than functional and daily
living skills, (3) contained an inappropriate transition
plan, and (4) failed to include information about the
appropriate placement for A.T. and about the least
restrictive environment in which he could be educated. Admin.
Compl., Admin. R. at 634-44. Ms. Middleton also asserted that
DCPS had denied A.T. a FAPE by changing his educational
placement from a small, self-contained class at Sousa to a
placement that required additional independent transitions
and by failing to provide all of A.T.'s specialized
instruction hours outside of the general education setting.
Admin. Compl., Admin. R. at 644-51. In addition, Ms.
Middleton complained that Woodson had not taken appropriate
actions to address A.T.'s disability-related attendance
issues and that the school had placed unreasonable and
unlawful conditions on A.T.'s educational advocate's
ability to observe A.T. in his educational placement. Admin.
Compl., Admin. R. at 651-57. Finally, Ms. Middleton asserted
that A.T.'s February 2016 IEP was also inappropriate
because, it (1) reduced his allotted special education
instructional hours, (2) continued his placement on the
diploma track, (3) focused on common core grade-level
standards rather than functional and daily living skills, (4)
contained an inappropriate transition plan, (5) failed to
include information about the appropriate placement for A.T.
and about his LRE, and (6) deemed A.T. ineligible for ESY,
even though he had qualified in the past and appeared to
remain qualified for such programming. Admin. R. at 657-63.
three-day hearing in October 2016-during which the hearing
officer heard testimony from Dr. Holman, Woodson's
special education coordinator, two of A.T.'s teachers,
experts in school placements and transition planning, and
others-the IHO denied most of Ms. Middleton's claims, but
granted a small number of them. See HOD, Admin. R.
at 21-32. Notably, the hearing officer declined to find a
violation of the IDEA due to A.T.'s placement on the
diploma track. See HOD, Admin. R. at 24. But the
hearing officer also declined to resolve whether A.T.'s
placement on diploma track was appropriate, instead ordering
A.T.'s IEP Team to meet with Ms. Middleton to discuss
whether to shift A.T. to the certificate track. HOD, Admin.
R. at 24.
agreed with Ms. Middleton that, with regard to the April 2015
IEP, DCPS had denied A.T. a FAPE by failing to include
A.T.'s LRE on the IEP. HOD, Admin. R. at 27-28. The IHO
also found that DCPS had changed A.T.'s placement from a
self-contained program at Sousa to a larger environment at
Woodson. HOD, Admin. R. at 26. However, the IHO concluded
that A.T.'s placement at Woodson was nonetheless
reasonably calculated to enable him to achieve educational
benefit and, thus, was appropriate. HOD, Admin. R. at 26-27.
Still, the IHO explained that DCPS had violated IDEA
procedures and had denied A.T. a FAPE by failing to involve
A.T.'s parent in the decision to place A.T. in the SLS
program at Woodson. HOD, Admin. R. at 27. Finally, with
respect to A.T.'s February 2016 IEP, the IHO noted that
DCPS had acknowledged that it erred in removing A.T. from ESY
programming and in reducing the number of specialized
instruction hours listed on his IEP. HOD, Admin. R. at 33-34.
According to the IHO, the removal from ESY programming denied
A.T. a FAPE, but the error in listing the number of
specialized instruction hours did not because A.T. actually
received the appropriate number of hours. See HOD,
Admin. R. at 31-32. In all other respects, the IHO found no
denial of FAPE. The IHO granted compensatory relief in the
form of 250 hours of tutoring and/or art therapy. HOD, Admin.
R. at 33.
Middleton brought the present action in January 2017.
See Compl., ECF No. 1. She seeks review of the HOD
and asks for compensatory relief for any denials of FAPE for
which she has not already been compensated. Compl. at 35-36.
Ms. Middleton also requests an order specifying that A.T.
requires an IEP and corresponding placement and programming
that includes (1) a minimum of 32 hours per week of
specialized instruction outside of the general education
setting; (2) placement on the certificate track and in
small-group programming that focuses on functional/daily
living skills and vocational training; and (3) a
“results-oriented, realistic, and appropriate
post-secondary transition” based on comprehensive
assessments. Compl. at 36. The action is now before the Court
on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.
See ECF Nos. 10, 12.
reviewing a challenge under the IDEA, courts conduct a
two-part inquiry: “First, has the State complied with
the procedures set forth in the Act? And second, is the
individualized educational program developed through the
Act's procedures reasonably calculated to enable the
child to receive educational benefits?” Bd. of
Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458
U.S. 176, 206-07 (1982) (footnotes omitted). “[A]
school district's failure to comply with the procedural
requirements of IDEA will be ‘actionable' only
‘if those procedural violations affected the
student's substantive rights.'” Leggett v.
District of Columbia, 793 F.3d 59, 67 (D.C. Cir. 2015)
(quoting Lesesne ex rel. B.F. v. District of
Columbia, 447 F.3d 828, 832, 834 (D.C. Cir. 2006)).
Regulations clarify that “[i]n matters alleging a
procedural violation, a hearing officer may find that a child
did not receive a FAPE only if the procedural inadequacies
(i) impeded the child's right to a FAPE; (ii)
significantly impeded the parent's opportunity to
participate in the decision-making process regarding the
provision of a FAPE to the parent's child; or (iii)
caused a deprivation of educational benefit.” 34 C.F.R.
respect to a purported substantive violation of the IDEA, a
court must determine whether the school district offered
“an IEP reasonably calculated to enable [the] child to
make progress appropriate in light of the child's
circumstances.” Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v.
Douglas Cty Sch. Dist. RE-1, 137 S.Ct. 988, 999 (2017).
“The key inquiry regarding an IEP's substantive
adequacy is whether, taking account of what the school knew
or reasonably should have known of a student's needs at
the time, the IEP it offered was reasonably calculated to
enable the specific student's progress.” Z.B.
v. District of Columbia, 888 F.3d 515, 524 (D.C. Cir.
2018). “The ‘reasonably calculated'
qualification reflects a recognition that crafting an
appropriate program of education requires a prospective
judgment by school officials.” Endrew F., 137
S.Ct. at 992. To that end, a suitable IEP “need not
guarantee the best possible education or even a
Leggett, 793 F.3d at 70 (quoting Rowley,
458 U.S. at 197 n.21). Similarly, a mere “de
minimis failure to implement all elements of [an]
IEP” does not amount to a violation of the IDEA.
Wilson v. District of Columbia, 770 F.Supp.2d 270,
274 (D.D.C. 2011). Rather, a party challenging a school
district's implementation of an IEP must
“demonstrate that the school board or other authorities
failed to implement substantial or significant provisions of
the IEP, ” id., or that “deviations from
the IEP's stated requirements [were]
‘material.'” Catalan ex rel. E.C. v.
District of Columbia, 478 F.Supp.2d 73, 75 (D.D.C.
reviewing the findings and decision of a hearing officer
“(i) shall receive the records of the administrative
proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the
request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the
preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the
court determines is appropriate.” 20 U.S.C. §
1415(i)(2)(C); see also C.F.R. § 300.516(c).
Although motions for review of an HOD are called motions for
summary judgment, the court does not follow “a true
summary judgment procedure.” L.R.L. ex rel. Lomax
v. District of Columbia, 896 F.Supp.2d 69, 73 (D.D.C.
2012) (quoting Ojai Unified Sch. Dist. v. Jackson, 4
F.3d 1467, 1472 (9th Cir. 1993)). Instead, “[a] motion
for summary judgment operates as a motion for judgment based
on the evidence comprising the record and any additional
evidence the Court may receive.” D.R. ex rel.
Robinson v. District of Columbia, 637 F.Supp.2d 11, 16
(D.D.C. 2009). “Where, as here, neither party submits
additional evidence for the court's review, ‘the
motion for summary judgment is simply the procedural vehicle
for asking the judge to decide the case on the basis of the
administrative record.'” Q.C-C. v. District of
Columbia, 164 F.Supp.3d 35, 44 (D.D.C. 2016) (quoting
Heather S. v. Wisconsin, 125 F.3d 1045, 1052 (7th
party challenging the administrative determination
“take[s] on the burden of persuading the court that the
hearing officer was wrong.” Kerkam v.
McKenzie, 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1988).
“While the court must make an independent
determination, the court also should give ‘due
weight' to the decision of the hearing officer and should
afford some deference to the expertise of the hearing officer
and the school officials.” D.K. v. District of
Columbia, 983 F.Supp.2d 138, 144 (D.D.C. 2013); see
also Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206 (“[T]he provision
that a reviewing court base its decision on the
‘preponderance of the evidence' is by no means an
invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of
sound educational policy for those of the school authorities
which they review.”). Furthermore, “[f]actual
findings from the administrative proceeding are to be
considered prima facie correct.” Roark ex rel.
Roark v. District of Columbia, 460 F.Supp.2d 32, 38
(D.D.C. 2006) (alteration in original) (quoting S.H. v.
Sch. Dist. of Newark, 336 F.3d 260, 270 (3d Cir. 2003)).
However, courts are to offer “less deference than is
conventional in administrative proceedings.” Reid
ex rel. Reid v. District of Columbia, 401 F.3d 516, 521
(D.C. Cir. 2005). And “a hearing decision without
reasoned and specific findings deserves little
parties each seek summary judgment on Ms. Middleton's
claims that DCPS (1) failed to design an appropriate IEP for
A.T. in April 2015; (2) improperly changed A.T.'s
educational placement when he entered high school; (3) failed
to fully implement A.T.'s April 2015 IEP; (4) failed to
appropriately address A.T.'s attendance issues; (5)
unreasonably and unlawfully conditioned the planned
observation of Ms. Middleton's educational advocate; and
(6) failed to provide A.T. an appropriate IEP in February
2016, all in violation of the IDEA. As explained below, the
Court agrees in large part-but not entirely-with Ms.
Middleton's contentions that DCPS failed in a host of
ways to provide A.T. with a free appropriate public
education. Accordingly, the Court grants her motion in part
and grants DCPS's motion in part and remands this matter
to the hearing officer for further proceedings.
Appropriateness of A.T.'s April 2015 IEP
Middleton first challenges the appropriateness of A.T.'s
April 2015 IEP, asserting that A.T. was denied a FAPE because
the IEP (1) improperly placed him on the diploma track and
did so without consulting Ms. Middleton, (2) featured
academic goals unsuitable for A.T., and (3) included a
post-secondary transition plan that was not based on
assessments of A.T.'s abilities and that contained unduly
vague goals. The Court agrees with Ms. Middleton's first
two contentions, but disagrees that A.T.'s post-secondary
transition plan was so inadequate as to deny him a FAPE.
Diploma Track Placement
regard to A.T.'s April 2015 IEP, Ms. Middleton protests
the hearing officer's conclusion that DCPS did not deny
A.T. a FAPE when it placed him on the standard high school
diploma track rather than on track to receive a Certificate
of IEP Completion and did so without consulting his parent.
Mem. of Points & Auth. Supp. of Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J.
(“Pl.'s Mem.”) at 5-8, ECF No. 10-1. As
explained below, the Court finds that the decision to put
A.T. on diploma track constituted an educational placement.
Furthermore, the Court concludes that the placement decision
was defective for two distinct reasons-(1) because DCPS
significantly impeded Ms. Middleton's opportunity to
participate in the decisionmaking process, and (2) because
A.T.'s placement on the diploma track was not reasonably
calculated to enable him to make progress appropriate in
light of his circumstances. Accordingly, the Court agrees
with Ms. Middleton that the placement denied A.T. a FAPE.
The Selection of a “Track” Constitutes an
Educational Placement Under the IDEA
threshold matter, the Court must address the apparent dispute
between Ms. Middleton on the one side and the hearing officer
and DCPS on the other about whether the decision to put a
student on diploma track constitutes an educational placement
under the IDEA. See Pl.'s Mem. at 5 (arguing
that “diploma track was part of the placement
decision”); Mem. of Points & Auth. Supp. of
Def.'s Opp'n to Pl.'s Mot. Summ. J. &
Cross-Mot. Summ. J. (“Def.'s Mem.”) at 7-8
(suggesting that, under District of Columbia law, diploma
track constitutes the default placement for all students),
ECF No. 12-1. This question is a critical one because, based
on the procedural safeguards of the IDEA, a school district
must offer meaningful parental participation and prior
written notice whenever it initiates or proposes to change a
child's educational placement. See 20 U.S.C.
§ 1414; see also 34 C.F.R. §§
300.116(a), 300.327, 300.501(b), 300.503(a). Thus, if the
selection of a “track” constitutes an educational
placement under the IDEA, DCPS was obligated to, among other
things, notify Ms. Middleton of the proposed placement and
permit her to participate as a member of the group ultimately
deciding A.T.'s track and the failure to do so would
be-at least-a procedural violation of the IDEA.
the hearing officer and DCPS intimate that a student's
placement on diploma track constitutes something other than
an educational placement. The hearing officer determined that
the appropriateness of A.T.'s placement on the diploma
track “c[a]me down to the fact that, pursuant to
[District of Columbia regulations], the diploma track is
default.” HOD, Admin. R. at 23. Specifically, the
hearing officer identified three reasons for his conclusion:
(1) because a student “must be on diploma track unless
specific action has been taken by his IEP team to shift him
to the certificate track, ” (2) because some members of
A.T.'s IEP team at Woodson believed that diploma track
was appropriate for A.T. “despite his virtual inability
to read and write due to his disabilities, ” and (3)
because Ms. Middleton took no action to shift A.T. to
certificate track after finding out his placement. HOD,