Thursday, October 15, 2009

Location, bricks and mortar

A complex set of laws and regulations govern the rights of disabled public school students. Under the Individuals With Disabilities In Education Act (IDEA), a committee on special education (CSE) at the school district convenes to determine the student's individualized educational program, or IEP. If the parents don't like the IEP and the district will not reimburse them for alternative, private education, the parents can appeal to state educational officials and, as a last resort, federal court.

The case is T.Y. v. New York City Department of Education, decided on October 9. T.Y. is autistic and needs special educational services. The CSE decided to place the student at a public school in District 75, "a group of schools that specialize in providing education for children with disabilities." The CSE did not name the school until a month later. Dad went to the school and deemed it unacceptable. The CSE named another school, and that was also unacceptable. The parents enrolled T.Y in a private school and asked the city to reimburse the tuition. The city said no, the parents appealed unsuccessfully to state educational authorities, and then filed suit in federal court.

The argument is that the IDEA requires the city to identify the particular school in the IEP. The parents base this on the language of the regulations, which says "the parents of a child with a disability must be afforded an opportunity to participate in meetings with respect to ... [t]he identification, evaluation, and educational placement of the child." The law also says the IEP includes "the anticipated frequency, location, and duration of those services." The Second Circuit says these are compelling arguments ... but only at first glace. On second glance, the parents lose.

The parents lose because "educational placement" under Second Circuit case law "refers only to the general type of educational program in which the child is placed." In other words, this phrase refers to classes and services, not the "bricks and mortar" of the school. What about "location" under the IDEA? That won't cut it, either. U.S. Department of Education commentaries in 1999 rejected this interpretation, and so did the U.S. Senate in its 1977 commentary on the law. "Location" means the general environment of the overall program, not the specific school location. The distict does not violate the IDEA in failing to provide this information. Since the parents had the opportunity to participate in the process and sent their son to a private school without giving the city an opportunity to offer another school, they do not have a claim for reimbursement under the IDEA.

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