Appeals Court Rules Against Public School District in Special Education Case

In a recent surprise ruling, the Sixth Circuit held that a school district’s failure to mainstream a student with Down Syndrome violated special education law, entitling his parents to tuition reimbursement.

Although their son was considerably behind his second-grade peers, his parents refused a self-contained setting and insisted that the team use the standard curriculum in a general education classroom. The district initially acquiesced and developed an IEP with goals closely aligned to the general education curriculum - goals that were overly ambitious and unrealistic. That year was
difficult for everyone, and for the following year, the district developed an IEP for a self-contained setting using an online curriculum geared toward children with intellectual disabilities. His parents rejected this IEP, enrolled their child at a Montessori school instead, and filed a due process complaint asking for tuition reimbursement. Although the hearing officer ruled in the school district’s favor, the Federal District Court in Tennessee did not.

On appeal, the court found that the school district was obligated to mainstream the student unless: (1) he would not benefit at all from a general education classroom; (2) any regular-education benefits would be far outweighed by those benefits of special education that could not be provided in a mainstream setting; or (3) the student would be a disruptive force in the regular class. The court analyzed these factors and found that none applied to this student: He derived some benefit from his general second-grade classroom, was not overly disruptive, and the special education advantages of a self-contained unit did not outweigh the benefits of mainstreaming. The court, however, found that Montessori was not an appropriate placement for this child and denied tuition reimbursement.

Both parties appealed to the Sixth Circuit, which held for the boy’s parents on all counts. The Sixth Circuit determined that mainstreaming provides enough benefit when a student makes “some progress” toward his IEP goals in the general education setting in light of his circumstances. Deciding a child’s least restrictive environment, the court explained, is not a decision that requires as much educational expertise as selecting a particular instructional methodology. In certain situations, the court emphasized, a placement which would be preferable for academic reasons should be rejected if it fails to provide for mainstreaming. The court also critically reviewed the curriculum that the district used in the self-contained setting, noting that it was not peer-reviewed as required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Finally, the Sixth Circuit found that the Montessori placement offered an education reasonably calculated to enable this child to make progress, and required the district to reimburse the parents for tuition costs.

In light of this decision, school district IEP teams should:

• Consider any outstanding parent requests for mainstreaming in line with the above analysis;
• Review the continuum of services offered by teams to ensure compliance with legal preference for mainstreaming;
• Consider additional push-in and pull-out services instead of a self-contained setting when appropriate;
• Determine whether the curricula offered to students with special education needs are peer reviewed and tied to Ohio’s standards.

Kathryn Perrico is an attorney at Walter | Haverfield who focuses her practice on education law. She can be reached at kperrico@walterhav.com or at 216-928-2948.

Miriam Pearlmutter is an attorney at Walter | Haverfield who focuses her practice on education law. She can be reached at mpearlmutter@walterhav.com or at 216-619-7861.