Special Needs Students Must Settle For Good, Not Great Education
FAPE. It’s not an urban clothing brand. It’s a Free Appropriate Public Education. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), school districts have to provide a FAPE to special needs children using an annually revised Individualized Education Plan (IEP) tailored to the child’s unique needs. If they are unable to do so, the parents can enroll the child in another facility at the district’s cost.
L.M. was diagnosed with autism at a young age. Despite his special needs, he managed to meet or exceed his school district’s academic standards for first grade. In second grade, his academic achievement continued, albeit with an increase in behavioral problems. The following year, he still met most academic milestones, but this behavior continued to worsen.
Before the end of his third grade year, and over the following summer, L.M.'s parents brought him to the Kennedy Krieger Institute (KKI) at John's Hopkins University. At the facility, experts worked with L.M. to design a behavior plan tailored to his needs. The most significant finding was the that use of a calming room seemed to actually worsen his behavior.
KKI recommended a three-stage plan that involved taking away toys and if behavior worsened, utilizing a baskethold. The plan resulted in a 95 percent reduction in his problem behaviors.
When the time came to return to school, L.M.'s parents sought to have the plan incorporated into the IEP. Instead, the district proposed a partial adoption of the plan, but with the calming room available. The district was concerned about protecting staff and students from physical outbursts and about the baskethold, which had in some cases resulted in death by asphyxiation.
The court highlighted the district's reasons for pushing for the calming room treatment: it kept others safe from physical outbursts, it showed some progress in the time before L.M. was taken to KKI, and KKI's plan also included a change in medications, which alone might have been responsible for his improvement.
The parties reached a standstill and L.M. was eventually enrolled in a private Montessori school, where the KKI plan was implemented to great success. L.M.'s parents then sought to have the district cover the cost of the school.
So the district was wrong, right? After all, L.M. had no outbursts towards other students, practiced self-control, and progressed in his education at his new school.
Right or wrong, the district still won't have to pay. The duty of the district is to provide an appropriate education, not an outstanding or perfect education. As the Eighth Circuit noted, "Although the IEP must provide some educational benefit, it need not maximize a student's potential or provide the best possible education at public expense."
Oddly enough, that means the state of the law is that parents of special needs children are supposed to settle for less than optimal treatment - or pay for it themselves. Then again, one might argue that all children could do better in smaller private schools, yet we won't cover those costs, will we?
- M.M. v. Dist 0001 Lancaster Co. School (Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Tenth Circuit Devises New Test for IDEA Reimbursement (FindLaw's Tenth Circuit Blog)
- Special Education and Disability Access (FindLaw)