Supreme Court Declines Appeal on IDEA Residential Placements

By Mark Walsh — June 24, 2013 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday denied the appeal of a Colorado school district over the question of whether federal special education law requires it to pay for a residential private school placement to treat a child’s mental illness.

The Jefferson County school district in suburban Denver asked the justices to review lower court rulings requiring it to pay for the out-of-state placement of a girl with a range of mental-health problems.

The student, identified in court papers as Elizabeth E., was born in 1991 and she was identified as in need of special education when she first moved to the Jefferson County district at age 8. The girl had significant mental-health issues and a history of aggressive behavior at school and at home, and her parents moved her to a private school beginning in 2006-07, when she was a high school freshman.

The parents and the district reached a mediated settlement under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in which the district agreed to pay half of the cost of the girl’s attendance at the private school.

After two years, the parents believed their daughter was not prepared for advancement at the Humanex Academy in Colorado, and they moved her first to a psychiatric hospital in Utah and then a residential treatment center in Idaho called Innercept. In the meantime, the school district stopped paying Elizabeth E.'s tuition at Humanex because she was no longer attending there.

Elizabeth’s parents sought reimbursement from the district for the costs of the girl’s special education and related services at Innercept, but the district refused, saying it was not responsible since Elizabeth was no longer a resident of the district.

A hearing officer, an administrative law judge, and a federal district judge all sided with the parents, with the district judge concluding that the education provided by the residential facility was reasonably calculated to enable the girl to receive educational benefits. (The court said more information was needed to determine how much of Innercept’s $9,800 per month cost was education-related and thus reimbursable by the district, versus how much was non-reimbursable medical costs.)

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, late last year also ruled unanimously for the parents. The court developed its own test for when a school district must pay for a private residential placement of a student under the IDEA.

The test involves whether a district fails to provide the child with a free, appropriate public education under the special education law; whether the child is placed at a state-accredited school; whether that school provides individually designed instruction to the student; and whether additional services beyond special education can be characterized as “related services” under the IDEA.

The district appeal’s to the Supreme Court in Jefferson County School District R-1 v. Elizebeth E. (Case No. 12-1175) argues that the 10th Circuit court’s test conflicts with those developed by other federal courts of appeals for evaluating reimbursements for residential placements for special education.

“There is no doubt that many children benefit from placements at exclusive residential facilities,” said the district’s appeal, which was filed by former acting U.S. Solicitor General Neal K. Katyal. “At the same time, many of those placements, including Elizabeth’s, cost more than $100,000 per student per year. Given the stakes, few educational decisions are as significant as whether a public school district must pay for a private residential placement. Yet despite the significance of these issues, there is no settled standard for determining when a residential placement is appropriate.”

The National School Boards Association, joined by its Colorado affiliate, filed a friend-of-the-court brief on the school district’s side.

“Schools lack the competency or capacity to treat or fund a student’s mental-health treatment or medical care,” the NSBA brie says. “Moreover, the IDEA does not provide clear notice that this is an obligation that must be accepted in exchange for the receipt of public funds.”

Lawyers for Elizabeth and her parents filed a brief opposing review, saying there is no real conflict among the courts of appeals but that in any even reimbursement would have been proper under any test.

The justices declined the appeal without comment.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.