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State Role in Finding Spec.-Ed. Placement Examined

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When a local school district is unable or unwilling to help a handicapped student make a successful transition from an out-of-state institution to a service program closer to home, the state may be required to step in, according to a new ruling by a federal appeals court.

The June ruling by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit came in a Georgia case involving Todd D., an emotionally disturbed 21-year-old who is about to "age out" of the special-education program provided by his school district.

The young man's "individualized education program"--drawn up by the school district, the man's parents, and other service-providers--calls for him to "transition" from the Texas psychiatric institution where he now lives to a residential facility and vocational program in his home community in DeKalb County, Ga.

The young man remains in the out-of-state program, however, because local school officials said they could not find a suitable placement for him closer to home.

Earlier, a lower court had ruled that the district had met its legal obligation by trying to find a suitable placement and that the Texas facility was, in this case, the "least restrictive environment" for Todd D. It ordered the district to revise the man's educational plan accordingly.

But the appeals court said the lower court had overstepped its bounds by ordering that the plan be revised.

Noting that federal special-education law requires the state to provide those services "when the local edu8cation agency is unable or unwilling to do so," the appellate panel sent the case back to the lower court.

The lower court was ordered to make factual findings on the district's ability or willingness to provide a new placement and to determine if the young man would better be served in a state-operated center.

"The state education department and [state department of] human resources need to enter into an agreement to provide services for children like Todd," said Charles Weatherly, the lawyer representing the school district, which sided with the parents in the case. "I'd say this is a broadening of the way states have defined their responsibility toward students in residential-placement programs."

The state has asked that the full appeals court rehear the case.--d.v.

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