A three-judge panel of the Third Circuit has ruled that the parents of a learning disabled student were not entitled to reimbursement of the costs of his private school tuition under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (“IDEA”), because the school district’s procedural violations of IDEA did not cause substantial harm to the rights of the parents or the student and because unreasonable parent conduct warranted equitable reduction of the award under IDEA.
C.H. was diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia, and a severe language disorder, and had been identified as a child with a disaiblity in the Cape Henlopen School District (CHSD), since the 1998-1999 school year. As the result of a settlement agreement between the parents and CHSD, C.H. was placed at Gow School, a private residential school for boys with language-based learning disabilities, for the 2005-2006 school year. His parents discussed his potential return to public school and the need for an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) with CHSD. The District began the process of assessing C.H. and held an IEP meeting on August 22nd, which C.H.’s mother attended. Although the notice came less than ten days before the meeting, in violation of the IDEA notice requirements, C.H.’s mother signed a written waiver of the notice requirement in order to permit the meeting to proceed.
Due to scheduling conflicts, the meeting ended before the IEP could be finalized and the parties agreed to meet on September 11th. However, prior to the scheduled meeting, C.H. began the school year at the Gow School, the parents filed a request for a due process hearing before the Department of Education Hearing Panel, and the District found out through the Gow School that C.H.’s mother was not planning on attending the scheduled IEP meeting. The parents refused to grant consent to a speech and language evaluation, which was necessary to the development of the IEP, and refused to participate in further IEP meetings in light of the due process complaint.
The Hearing Panel heard the parents’ claims, which included procedural violations and a claim that the District failed to correctly conduct his psychological evaluation. The parents sought the full cost of tuition and related costs for the Gow School, but the Hearing Panel found that C.H. was not deprived of a free and appropriate public education and that the IDEA was not violated. The U.S. District Court of Delaware, citing the findings of the Hearing Panel, granted CHSD’s motion for summary judgment and the parents appealed.
The Third Circuit panel explained that procedural violations only rise to the level of a denial of the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) if they cause substantive harm to the child or his parents. With respect to the alleged failure to have an IEP in place, the panel found that the parents, not the school district, were responsible for the delays in finalizing the IEP and that C.H. did not lose any educational benefit because he was attending the Gow School. Even if he had attended the public school, the IEP could have been developed for him within a week of the start of the school year. Similarly, the panel determined that failure to notify the parents ten days before the IEP meeting did not impair the parents’ knowledge of or participation in educational decisions because the mother attended the August IEP meeting, and was aware of the September meeting but did not attend because of the due process hearing. There fore, there was no substantive harm caused by the District cause by any procedural violations. The panel explained, “The procedural requirements of the IDEA governing notice of IEP meetings are intended to ensure parental participation in the IEP process, not to provide the Parents with a hook on which to hang a tuition reimbursement claim. It is clear to us, as it was to the District Court, that the Parents have been their own greatest impediment to participation in the evaluation of C.H.’s disabilities and the development of an appropriate IEP.”
The Third Circuit panel also found that even if the District had violated the IDEA, equitable considerations weighed against granting the tuition reimbursement, because the parents withdrew C.H. without any prior notice to the District and delayed the IEP. Contrary to the parents’ assertion that the IDEA’s “stay-put” provision gives parents the right right to refuse to cooperate with the IEP development the panel held that “stay-put” was not meant to suspend or frustrate the ongoing cooperation of the parents and schools districts, but instead guarantees that the child will still get the necessary educational services during due process proceedings. In addition, the claim that the Hearing Panel violated the parents’ due process rights was dismissed, because it had not been raised at the lower court.
C.H. v. Cape Henlopen Sch. Dist., No. 08-3630 (3d Cir. May 25, 2010)
[Editor's note: The Supreme Court has recently weighted in on the issue of awarding reimbursement to parents who unilaterally place their child with a disability in a private school. In June, 2009, the Supreme Court held that the IDEA did not bar reimbursement for a private placement when the school district has failed to provide a FAPE, and the student had not previously received special education services from the public school. When the U.S. District Court for the District of Oregon re-heard the case on remand, however, it decided that reimbursement was not warranted. It ruled in December, 2009 that the equities do not support reimbursing parents for their child’s private school tuition under the IDEA when the parents enrolled the student based on drug abuse and behavior problems, rather than educational difficulties associated with ADHD. A summary of the district court's decision on remand, along with a link to the Supreme Court's decision in the case, is available at the link below.]