Tuesday, April 03, 2012

SDNY Denies Reimbursement Because Private School Setting was Unnecessarily Segregated

A couple of weeks ago, Judge Cathy Seibel of the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York issued an opinion granting summary judgment to the defendant school district in C.L. and G.W. v. Scarsdale Union Free School District, 2012 WL 983371 (S.D.N.Y., Mar. 22, 2012).  This IDEA case involved a child, C.L., who appears to have had a learning disability and fine motor issues.  From Kindergarten through third grade, the school district provided C.L. various special education services -- and offered others that C.L.'s parents declined -- but it did not formulate an IEP for C.L. pursuant to the IDEA, because it did not believe him eligible for services under that statute.  Nonetheless, C.L. made progress in his classes.

Believing that C.L. was entitled to services under the IDEA, and therefore disagreeing with the district's decision not to provide him those services, C.L.'s parents removed him from the public schools after his third grade year.  They enrolled him at the Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, Connecticut, a school that exclusively serves children with learning disabilities.  They then sought reimbursement pursuant to the IDEA.  A hearing officer concluded that the school district had denied C.L. a free appropriate public education pursuant to the IDEA, that Eagle Hill was an appropriate educational setting for C.L., and that the district must accordingly reimburse C.L.'s parents for the cost of his tuition.  On an administrative appeal, the state review officer agreed that the district had denied C.L. a FAPE.  But the review officer concluded that the parents were not entitled to reimbursement, because Eagle Hill was not an appropriate placement.

The parents sought judicial review in the federal district court, which affirmed the state review officer's decision.  The parties agreed that the school district had denied C.L. a FAPE, and the court did not express any doubt on that point.  But the court agreed with the review officer that Eagle Hill was not an appropriate placement.  The court pointed to significant evidence in the record that C.L. had made substantial progress in the public school setting through third grade.  It also concluded that "ample testimony" supported the state review officer's finding that C.L. "benefitted from interaction with his nondisabled peers" -- interaction he would not experience at Eagle Hill, a school that is limited to students with disabilities.  The court concluded:  "In sum, while Eagle Hill seems to be a fine school, I cannot say—given the record of CL's progress while mainstreamed at Greenacres, the propriety of the services offered to CL despite his erroneous classification, and the deference owed the SRO—that the SRO erred in his view that the pros of Eagle Hill did not outweigh the cons of an unnecessarily restrictive environment that separated CL from his non-disabled peers."

This ruling reflects what I see as a salutary trend of district courts taking account of integration issues in resolving requests for private-school reimbursement under the IDEA.  Unless courts pay attention to these issues, the private-school reimbursement rule can be an engine for the unnecessary segregation of children with disabilities, contrary to the overall purposes of the IDEA and disability rights law.  Although these cases are difficult for parents, it's good to see the courts preserving the IDEA's integrationist goals.

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