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Gaston v. District of Columbia

United States District Court, District of Columbia

August 6, 2019

FAITH GASTON, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION [DKT. ## 10, 11 ]

          RICHARD J. LEON, UNITED STATES DISTRCT JUDGE.

         Faith Gaston and her minor child B.G. (collectively, "plaintiffs") brought this action against the District of Columbia ("District" or "defendant") for injunctive and declaratory relief under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. See Compl. [Dkt. # 1]. Plaintiffs claim that the District violated the IDEA by denying B.G. a free appropriate public education when it failed to provide her with an appropriate individual educational program during the 2017-18 academic year. See Id. at ¶ 1.

         Pending before me are the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See [Dkt. ## 10, 11]. Upon consideration of the briefing, the relevant law, and the entire record herein, and for the reasons stated below, plaintiffs' motion for summary judgment is GRANTED and defendant's cross-motion for summary judgment is DENIED.

         BACKGROUND

         B.G. is a minor child eligible to receive special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") as a student with a disability. See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et. seq. Defendant is a municipal corporation that receives federal funds pursuant to the IDEA and is obligated to comply with the IDEA. See Id. §§ 1411, 1412(a)(1)(A).

         A. Statutory Background

         The IDEA provides that states and territories, including defendant, that receive federal educational assistance must establish "policies and procedures to ensure," among other things, that a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") is available to disabled children. See Id. § 1412(a)(1)(A). In order to provide such children with a FAPE, a school district must create and implement an individualized education plan ("IEP"), "which is the 'primary vehicle' for implementing the [IDEA]." Lesesne ex rel. B.F. v. District of Columbia., 447 F.3d 828, 830 (D.C. Cir. 2006) (quoting Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988)). An IEP is developed through "meetings with a representative of the school district, teachers, parents or guardians, and the child if appropriate." Honig, 484 U.S. at 311. Among other things, it "lays out the specialized educational services the child will require to meet" the goals that the team establishes for him or her. Id.

         Under the IDEA, a parent of a disabled child who is dissatisfied with a school district's "provision of a [FAPE] to such child," 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6), may present their arguments in an "impartial due process hearing," id. § 1415(f). At the hearing, the parties are permitted to put on evidence and expert testimony about the child's educational and functional needs. Id. § 1415(f), (h). An independent hearing officer will then consider the evidence presented and issue a "determination of whether the child received a [FAPE]." Id. § 1415(f)(3)(E). A party aggrieved by the hearing officer's determination may bring a civil action in state or federal court. Id. § l4l5(i)(2).

         B. Factual Background

         B.G. is a fourteen-year-old female student, a resident of the District of Columbia, and the adopted child of Ms. Gaston. AR5, 321, 571-74.[1] B.G. faced a number of serious hardships as a young child, including in utero exposure to drugs and alcohol as well as physical abuse and introduction to dangerous and violent situations. AR84. Perhaps consequently, B.G.'s childhood and adolescence have been marked by a longstanding and well-documented history of academic and behavioral challenges. AR6, 62-82, 96-109, 168-82, 579-81. In the fourth grade, B.G. was formally diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactive disorder ("ADHD'') AR171. She was enrolled in private schools through the seventh grade but was removed during the 2016-2017 school year after an altercation with other students. AR63, 93, 171.

         In 2016, while still in private school, B.G. was referred to the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS'`) for special education testing. At that point, B.G. was twelve years old and enrolled as a seventh grader at DuPont Park Adventist School. AR51. DCPS convened a multidisciplinary team ("DCPS team") meeting on October 18, 2016 to discuss B.G.'s circumstances and determine how to move forward. AR6, 51, 54, 62. B.G. was referred for an initial psychological and educational evaluation, which DCPS psychologist Dr. Leah Nathan prepared on January 26, 2017. AR62. In the course of her evaluation, Dr. Nathan interviewed, among others, B.G.'s teachers, who reported that B.G. struggled with basic computation and reading skills and that she frequently acted out in negative ways. AR64-65. Dr. Nathan also performed a series of tests; B.G. measured poorly in verbal comprehension, fluid reasoning, and behavioral functioning. AR65-77. Dr. Nathan opined that based on B.G.'s ADHD and her history of academic and behavioral problems, B.G. appeared to meet the criteria for classification as a student with an "other health impairment." AR77. Dr. Nathan recommended that B.G. receive, among other things, a behavior intervention plan and counseling. AR81.

         On February 23, 2017, the DCPS team met to review and discuss Dr. Nathan's report. AR89. Consistent with Dr. Nathan's recommendations, the team classified B.G. as "other health impairment" based on her ADHD and determined that B.G. was eligible for special education services. AR6, 90. The team also decided that a draft IEP should be developed for B.G. and reviewed in March 2017. AR90. A few weeks later, B.G. was involved in a physical altercation with other students and transferred from DuPont Adventist to the public Kramer Middle School. AR93, 171.

         The DCPS team met again on March 24, 2017 to review B.G.'s IEP. AR123. The March 2017 IEP called for B.G. to receive ten hours per week of specialized instruction and three hours per month of behavioral support services, both within the general education setting. AR118. Notwithstanding the IEP, B.G. ended the 2016-2017 academic year with poor grades, including a D in English, a D in Reading Support, and an F in Science. AR159-60.

         B.G. continued her enrollment in Kramer for the 2017-2018 school year. On July 28, 2017, independent psychologist Dr. Natasha Nelson conducted a comprehensive psychological evaluation of B.G., which Dr. Nelson updated on September 25, 2017. AR168. Dr. Nelson found that B.G., who was set to enter the eighth grade, was reading at the third-grade level and writing at the fifth-grade level, and that her math skills were at the fourth-grade level. AR173-74. Dr. Nelson observed that B.G. "appear[ed] to suffer from affective disorder that is rooted in depression"; she diagnosed B.G. with an unspecified depressive disorder (in addition to her preexisting ADHD diagnosis). AR 177-78. Based on these diagnoses, Dr. Nelson recommended that, together with B.G.'s "'other health impairment" classification for ADHD, B.G. "be classified under the special education category of emotional disturbance.'' AR178.[2] Dr. Nelson further recommended that B.G. receive fifteen hours per week of "pull out" special education instruction outside of the general education setting in reading and math as well as "inclusion supports" in all of B.G.'s other academic classes. AR178. In this context, by "inclusion supports" Dr. Nelson meant that a special education teacher would work ...


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