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Out-of-State Move Doesn't Absolve District of Spec. Ed. Obligations

A federal court of appeals has ruled that when a student with disabilities moves out of state, that doesn't absolve a school district from providing compensatory education services.

In a ruling this month in D.F. vs. Collingswood Borough Board of Education, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a previous ruling that excused the New Jersey school district from making up for special education services a student missed when enrolled in that district.

D.F. was a kindergartner in the district in the 2008-09 school year, but he had already been identified as having a disability by another school district. Midway through the school year, D.F.'s mother filed a due process complaint, alleging that the district wasn't upholding all of its obligations to her son under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Over the course of the following school year, D.F.'s mother and the school district tussled over whether the boy should attend an out-of-district school. By the end of the 2009-10 school year, the family had moved to Georgia. An administrative law judge dismissed the case as moot.

The student's mother complained that her son had been in a regular classroom without a personal aide for the first half of the school year, violating his education plan and that he had been subjected to discipline without consideration of the fact that his behavior was a manifestation of his disability, among other issues.

D.F. had been diagnosed as having ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, and although his cognitive abilities were at or above grade level, he threw objects, hit classmates, had temper tantrums, and ran away. In the school district where he was diagnosed with disabilities, strategies outlined in a behavior intervention plan had begun to improve his behavior.

The court ruled that there is "no basis to distinguish between out-of-district, but in-state, moves and out-of-state moves in the IDEA or in case law" and rejected the school district's theory that compensatory educational services were "subsumed within the education that he was currently receiving" from his new school district.

The Third Circuit said a "claim for compensatory education is not rendered moot by an out-of-district move, even if that move takes the child out of state," and said that to hold otherwise would undermine the purpose of IDEA and would disproportionately affect low-income families, who cannot afford to front the costs of their children's education.

The Education Law Center in New Jersey, which filed an amicus brief supporting D.F., said it was satisfied with the ruling.

It was "a simple matter of fairness" and a case that will "aid all students with disabilities in New Jersey and beyond," said Ruth Lowenkron, the senior attorney at the center who worked on the case.

But what does the ruling mean for Collingswood? The court said one way the district could provide this compensatory education is by establishing a fund that could be spent on D.F.'s education. The district could also pay D.F.'s new district or to contract with a local provider in his new home to provide tutoring, counseling, or other support services.

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