Federal Court docket Guidelines in Favor of APS in Drawn-Out Training Dispute
(Updated at 2:50 pm) A multi-year legal battle between a family and Arlington Public Schools over the adequacy of their child’s special educational assistance ended this summer with a federal court ruling in favor of APS.
While the ways of settling disputes for the family come to a dead end, the decision gives an insight into the strain on the special education system. Alleged collaboration between school and parents can become a grueling legal process if parents and the school system disagree on aspects of the child’s disability or on the most appropriate attitude for the child.
In this case, the parents sued APS, demanding that she pay tuition fees at a private day school they believed would be better for their child than Williamsburg Middle School. The decision of the federal court states that APS does not have to pay the tuition fees.
The court also overturned a lower verdict from a state official who said the school system should reimburse parents for a private assessment they received. A psychologist found that his child had disabilities that APS did not find when assessed.
This case shows that some decisions favor schools in part because parents make procedural errors before realizing that each step of the process could serve as evidence later in a hearing, special education attorney Juliet Hiznay told ARLnow.
She said both the hearing officer and the federal decision were well founded and the parents made some common mistakes.
“Many parents fall into some kind of traps for the unwary: not upholding their claims, not communicating them during meetings, not putting them on record,” she said.
The case was also extremely rare for the case to go to federal court, as the legal system for special schools is set up to resolve these issues through meetings and mediation sessions, she said. The parents sued after an administrative procedure with an independent hearing officer did not work in their favor.
“There is a risk involved. There is an emotional toll and a practical price: school districts don’t like being sued, so suing a school department will destroy the relationship, “she said. “And many parents are afraid, some have more than one child and don’t want to risk reprisals from the school district.”
A family experience
The boy at the center of the lawsuit is currently attending a private school in Sterling, Virginia, according to federal court documents. The home school is Nottingham Elementary School, which he attended from kindergarten through fourth grade.
During his time in Nottingham, his parents and school officials noticed that he was struggling academically and socially. During a first grade exam, he showed himself “in various areas of difficulty,” including reading, writing and arithmetic, attentiveness and organization, and making friends, according to a lawsuit filed on behalf of parents.
He was given an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), a document that outlines the school’s services under the category of “specific learning disabilities”. But in fourth grade he “still fought very hard,” the lawsuit says.
According to data from the Virginia Department of Education, APS has cared for an increasing number of children with suspected or diagnosed specific learning disabilities over the past four years.
While still in Nottingham, the boy’s parents pushed for updated tests to see if he was eligible for additional services under additional disability categories, but APS said this was not necessary according to the parents’ complaint. So his parents started paying for after-school tuition.
Despite advances in the public school system, the parents brought their son to St. Agnes, a parish school, for his fifth year. There he faced bullying and school staff suggested that their son’s problems “went beyond what APS had identified,” according to the lawsuit. At the urging of school staff, the parents had their son screened privately and diagnosed with autism, ADHD, learning difficulties reading and writing, and neurodevelopmental disorder.
His diagnosis of autism is part of a trend that is reflected in APS. According to VDOE data, the school system has been offering services to more students with suspected or diagnosed autism every year since 2010.
The evaluating psychologist recommended a school setting with “a small student-teacher ratio, environment structure, multimodal teaching and frequent reinforcement”.
According to the federal court ruling, APS offered to make a number of changes to its curriculum based on these recommendations, but parents instead sought a place at Newton School in Sterling for sixth grade.
Newton School is aimed at students who are struggling in a traditional school setting, whether it be because they can’t sit still for long or are having trouble making friends, according to the website. Parents argued that GSP classrooms were not suitable because the smaller classes would meet other students with special educational needs, while the general education classes were too large.
“The environment the parents are looking for may be ideal, but it is not [the law] requires. An IEP has to be ‘appropriate’ but not ideal ‘”, the court ruling said. “In addition, Newton is not accredited for the placement of special schools.”
Even if it was better for the student, schools would rarely cover the tuition fees for a private school without state accreditation, Hiznay said.
The winding road to special needs legal proceedings
Parents and school officials meet at least once a year, but sometimes more often, to go through their child’s IEP and make changes.
“You have to think about it [these] Meet like a negotiation, ”said Hiznay. “Although it is designed as a collaborative process, we all know that there are some practical ways that people can get into conflict very easily.”
And these meetings “aren’t easy” for parents because these negotiations involve their child in trouble, she said.
Here in the Commonwealth there is a lot of conflict over the type of education or therapy the child should receive, what the parents want but the schools think are unnecessary, Hiznay said.
In the event of disagreement, parents can request mediation services. According to the latest data from the VDOE, there were an average of 126 mediation requests and 104 mediation discussions across the country from 2011 to 2015.
After that, parents can start due process, an expensive administrative process where schools and parents produce evidence and a hearing officer makes a decision. Although there have been an average of 50 due process complaints over these years, the number of due process hearings that ultimately lead to Hearing Officer’s decisions is far fewer.
Every year the VDOE publishes the fully decided hearing cases, with all identifying information – including the school system concerned – being blacked out. Over the past eight years, the number of fully decided hearings has fluctuated between seven and ten before rising to 20 in the 2019/20 school year.
Schools don’t often offer a place in a private school without parents asking because it’s expensive. Sometimes when schools reject the parents’ request, they pay the tuition themselves and later sue for reimbursement, as the Arlington family did.
This approach is more common in northern Virginia than anywhere else in the Commonwealth because of the wealthier and more specialized schools that are here, Hiznay said.
“The vast majority of parents do not send their children to special schools,” she said. “But some people will do anything to get their children to private school.”
The judge’s decision in the family lawsuit was filed in June. APS’s motion for a summary judgment was granted, with the judge ruling that the evidence presented at the administrative hearing was sufficient to determine that the school system provided the student with sufficient special education accommodation and that the private school fees were not required to pay.
According to federal law, public schools are obliged to provide accommodations for disabled students, the judge stated in her judgment, but these accommodations within the IEP may only be “appropriate”. The law does not require the IEP to be “ideal,” nor does it require the administrative hearing officer to address every argument raised by parents, the judge wrote.
“The fourth district has ruled that federal courts cannot run local schools. Local educators deserve leeway in determining the individual educational program that is best for a disabled child. That [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] does not take these educators the right to use their professional judgment, “wrote the US District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema in the decision. “Insofar as the hearing officer’s decision was not as specific as the plaintiffs would have liked and did not respond to every single procedural argument they had put forward, this is not required by the fourth district.”
Graphics by Anuj Khemka