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Middleton v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

June 4, 2018

RENEE MIDDLETON, Plaintiff.
v.
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 SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          RUDOLPH CONTRERAS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Plaintiff 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.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Statutory Framework

         By 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).

         Children 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).

         “[A]ware 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”).

         A 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).

         B. Factual Background

         A.T., 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 ¶ 4.

         When 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. at 1288.

         The IEP 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. at 345-48.

         A.T.'s 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.

         The 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.

         During 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.[1] 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.

         On 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.

         The 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”).

         Over 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”).

         In 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 ¶¶ 70-74.

         The 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.

         Shortly 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.

         At the 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.[2]Pl.'s SMFND ¶ 86.

         In July 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.

         After a 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.

         The IHO 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.

         Ms. 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.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         In 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. § 300.513(a)(2).

         With 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 ‘potential-maximizing' one.” 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. 2007).

         A court 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 Cir. 1997)).

         The 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 deference.” Id.

         IV. ANALYSIS

         The 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.

         A. Appropriateness of A.T.'s April 2015 IEP

         Ms. 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.

         1. Diploma Track Placement

         With 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.

         i. The Selection of a “Track” Constitutes an Educational Placement Under the IDEA

         As a 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.

         Both 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, Admin. ...


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