By Mark Walsh
A Colorado school district must reimburse the parents of a student with learning disabilities as well as emotional and behavioral difficulties for the costs of the student's enrollment at an out-of-state residential treatment facility, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The case has been watched closely by school board groups and President Barack Obama's administration because it involves the standard for "unilateral" private school placements under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Under the federal law, parents who unilaterally place a child with disabilities in a private school may win reimbursement from their local school district if the district failed to provide a free, appropriate public education, or FAPE, and certain other conditions are met.
At particular issue in the case is whether a school district may be liable for such reimbursement when a child's educational and mental-health needs are closely intertwined and the residential placement is addressing both needs.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, ruled 3-0 in favor of the parents of a girl who is described in court papers as having severe emotional and mental-health needs. In 2008, her parents clashed with the Jefferson County district over her education plan under the IDEA before enrolling her at Innercept, an Idaho residential facility that charges $9,800 per month, court papers say.
The parents sought reimbursement from the Jefferson County district, a request that the district rejected because it viewed the student as being hospitalized out of state and thus not a responsibility of the district. After an administrative-hearing officer ruled for the parents, the district filed a federal lawsuit. A federal district court held that the school district must reimburse the parents for the costs at Innercept except for those medical expenses involving a licensed physician.
The school district appealed to the 10th Circuit court, where it was joined in a friend-of-the-court brief by the National School Boards Association and the state school boards' groups for five of the six states that make up the 10th Circuit: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah. (Wyoming is the sixth state in the circuit.)
"School districts should not be responsible for unilateral residential placements made for medical purposes," the NSBA brief says. "Such responsibility is not only beyond the range of their competence and funding but also exceeds the requirements of the IDEA."
Meanwhile, the parents drew the support of the Obama administration, with the U.S. Department of Justice filing a friend-of-the-court brief on their side that was also signed by a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Education.
"This court should join the majority of circuit courts of appeals and adopt a test that a school district is liable under the IDEA for the cost of a residential placement, less the cost of medical treatment that can be provided only by a licensed physician, if the child's mental-health needs are so significantly intertwined with his or her educational needs that educational services cannot be provided without some mental-health treatment," the federal brief says.
While residential placements can be costly, the brief adds, "the very small number of children for whom residential placement is the least restrictive environment are among the most vulnerable and historically underserved children in need of IDEA services."
In its Dec. 28 decision in Jefferson County School District v. Elizabeth E., the 10th Circuit panel weighed whether it should adopt the "significantly intertwined" test urged by the Obama administration (and used by several other federal courts of appeals) or a test adopted by other federal circuits that says a private placement is reimbursable only when it is "primarily oriented" to enabling the child to obtain an education.
The panel decided it did not need to side with either test since the appeal before it could be resolved by a "straightforward application" of the text of the IDEA. The court held that Innercept is an accredited educational facility, and that the student received instruction designed to meet her needs. In addition, the mental-health services the student received were required for her to benefit from her instruction, and thus they were reimbursable "related services" under the federal special education law.
The court also concluded that the school district's "repeated statements that it had no obligation to [the student] under the IDEA because she was not physically present in Colorado" did not square with the IDEA, "which makes no allowance for such a condition."