Friday, February 10, 2012

Interesting Case on IDEA and Charter Schools

On Wednesday, Judge John E. Jones III of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania issued an opinion in I.H. v. Cumberland Valley School District, --- F.Supp.2d ----, 2012 WL 400686 (M.D. Pa., Feb. 8, 2012). The case raises interesting questions about the respective obligations of a public charter school and a child's geographical home school district under the IDEA. The case involves a middle schooler, I.H., who has been diagnosed with various disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder, learning disabilities, and ADHD. The hearing officer found that his home school district denied him a free appropriate public education by, first, having him receive only half days of instruction and then assigning him to receive only homebound instruction (separated by a brief, seemingly disastrous, two-day interlude in which the district assigned him to what the court described as "a school for severely emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children which regularly has to call the police to handle problems with students"). After a semester of homebound instruction, and "[b]ecause the Defendant School District would not work with Plaintiff and Plaintiff's Guardian to develop a satisfactory special education plan, Plaintiff's Guardian withdrew Plaintiff from the Defendant School District and enrolled him at Agora Cyber Charter School ('Agora'), a public cyber charter school, for the 2010–2011 school year." 

Finding the denial of a FAPE, the hearing officer ordered the home school district to provide compensatory education for the period before I.H. was enrolled at Agora.  But because under Pennsylvania law a charter school is its own local education agency, and the home school district was therefore no longer I.H.'s LEA once he was enrolled at Agora, the hearing officer refused to order the home school district to provide a FAPE or an IEP prospectively.  I.H. sought judicial review of this decision, and the home school district moved to dismiss.  The court concluded that the case should be dismissed insofar as it sought an order requiring the home school district actually to provide a FAPE; once I.H. moved to a charter school, the court concluded, providing a FAPE became the charter school's responsibility.  But the court concluded that, accepting the complaint's allegations as true, the home school district nonetheless was required to provide I.H. with a new and sufficient IEP so that he and his guardian could consider whether to reenroll him in the local schools:  "On the facts as pled in Plaintiff's Complaint, the school district of residence cannot be relieved of its responsibility to provide a requested IEP under the IDEA simply because the student has not enrolled in the school district, especially where the school district's previous failure to provide an adequate IEP is the reason for the student's unenrollment in the first place."

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