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Federal Judge Rules Schools Must Pay Portion of Therapy

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A federal district judge in Illinois ruled this month that school systems must, in certain circumstances, pay a portion of the cost of psychotherapy administered to handicapped students by physicians.

The provision in P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, requiring school systems to pay for "related services" for handicapped students should be interpreted to include payment for psychotherapy, ruled U.S. District Judge Nicholas Bua in the case of Max M. v. Thompson.

Judge Bua, of the Northern District of Illinois, further ruled that school systems must pay for such treatment even though it is administered by a psychiatrist. In the past, P.L. 94-142 had been interpreted to relieve school systems of the responsibility to pay for so-called "medical services"--those provided by licensed doctors--except when they were needed to diagnose and evaluate students, according to lawyers familiar with the law.

However, Judge Bua ruled that the school system in the case, the New Trier Township High School District 203 in suburban Chicago, must pay only the equivalent of the cost of psychotherapy performed by psychologists, social workers, or guidance counselors, whose work is not considered to be a medical service under P.L. 94-142. Treatment by a psychiatrist is generally more expensive than that by a psychologist, social worker, or counselor.

Earlier this year, Judge Bua, in another finding in the same case, ruled that school systems may under P.L. 94-142 be required to pay for ''compensatory" treatment for special-education students once they have left school, if it is shown that the schools failed to provide adequate treatment while the students are under their jurisdiction.

Max M. v. Thompson involves a student who was diagnosed as emotionally disturbed. In 1978, when the student, Max M., was a sophomore at New Trier Township High School, his parents sought intensive psychotherapy for him from the school system. The school system, according to its lawyer, John A. Relias, offered the treatment through a school-district social worker. The parents declined, and a year later they paid to have their son treated by a psychiatrist in private practice.

They sued the school system in 1982, contending that P.L. 94-142 required New Trier to reimburse them for the cost of the treatment and that it had to pay for additional treatment for their son--specifically, placement in a residential facility that offers both schooling and psychotherapy--because it failed to provide psychotherapy, a "support service," when he attended school.

Mr. Relias said the case will now go to trial to determine whether the school system acted "in bad faith" in not advising the student of his procedural rights to appeal under P.L. 94-142; whether it must reimburse the parents for the cost of privately administered psychotherapy; and whether it must pay for compensatory treatment of Max M. in a residential psychiatric facility.

P.L. 94-142 requires that school systems must be found to have acted in bad faith in order to be liable for damages, said Mr. Relias. He described the case as "one of the most significant" special-education cases in progress in federal courts.--tt

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