A Colorado school district must reimburse the parents of a student with learning disabilities as well as emotional and behavioral difficulties for the costs of the student’s enrollment at an out-of-state residential facility, a federal appeals court has ruled.
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, parents who unilaterally place a child with disabilities in a private school may win reimbursement from their local school district if the district failed to provide a free, appropriate public education, and certain other conditions are met.
At particular issue in the case decided Dec. 28 is whether a district may be liable for such reimbursement when a child’s educational and mental-health needs are closely intertwined and the residential placement is addressing both needs.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, ruled 3-0 in favor of the parents of a girl described in court papers as having severe emotional and mental-health needs. In 2008, her parents clashed with the 84,000-student Jefferson County district over her education plan under the IDEA before enrolling her at a residential facility that charges $9,800 per month, court papers say.
The district rejected the parents’ request for reimbursement because it viewed the student as being hospitalized out of state and thus not a responsibility of the district. After an administrative-hearing officer ruled for the parents, the district filed a federal lawsuit. A federal district court held that the school district must reimburse the costs except for those medical expenses involving a licensed doctor.
The school district’s appeal to the 10th Circuit court prompted a friend-of-the-court brief from the National School Boards Association and the state school boards’ groups for five of the six states in the circuit: Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Utah. (Wyoming is the sixth state.)
The parents drew the support of the Obama administration, with the U.S. Department of Justice filing a friend-of-the-court brief that was also signed by a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Education.
While residential placements can be costly, the federal brief in Jefferson County School District v. Elizabeth E. said, “the very small number of children for whom residential placement is the least restrictive environment are among the most vulnerable and historically undeserved children in need of IDEA services.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2013 edition of Education Week as Appeals Court Backs Parents in Spec. Ed. Placement