Published by MOASBO, January/February 2010

On June 22, 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court held that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, parents may seek private school tuition reimbursement, even if their child has never before received special education services. The case, Forest Grove School District v. T.A., was widely touted as a win for parents, a blow for school districts, and a warning that school districts should be more vigilant with respect to the IDEA’s child find mandate.

The case stemmed from Forest Grove‘s failure to properly identify and evaluate the student, T.A., in all areas of suspected disability in 2001. Two years later, T.A. visited with a private specialist and received a medical diagnosis of ADHD and a recommendation for a private residential facility. His parents enrolled him at the private facility shortly thereafter, at a cost of over $5,000 a month. In April 2003, the parents requested a due process hearing that asked Forest Grove to revisit its 2001 ineligibility determination. In July 2003, T.A.’s multidisciplinary team found that T.A.’s medical diagnosis of ADHD did not have a significant adverse impact on his educational performance, and therefore, he continued to be ineligible as a student with a disability under the IDEA.

In January 2004, the hearing officer in the due process hearing found that T.A.’s ADHD did adversely affect his educational performance and that Forest Grove therefore failed to meet its child find obligations under IDEA. Further, the hearing officer found that Forest Grove’s failure denied T.A. a Free Appropriate Public Education. Finally, the hearing officer found that the parents’ chosen private-school placement was appropriate under IDEA. Accordingly the hearing officer ordered Forest Grove to reimburse respondent’s parents for the cost of the private-school tuition.

Forest Grove appealed the hearing officer’s decision and the case went to the U.S. District Court of Oregon. Judge Moseman reversed the hearing officer’s determination, finding that the IDEA precluded private school reimbursement if the student had never before received special education services. After the 9th Circuit reversed Judge Moseman’s decision, the case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court affirmed the 9th Circuit and held that T.A.’s failure to be previously identified as a student with a disability under the IDEA did not categorically bar reimbursement to the private residential facility. Accordingly, the Supreme Court remanded the case back to Judge Moseman to determine whether the “equities” would allow T.A. to get reimbursed.

On December 8, 2009, Judge Moseman decided that the equities of the case prevented the parents from recovering the costs of the private residential placement, largely because the evidence in the case showed that parents sought the residential placement not for educational reasons, but for the student’s drug abuse and problem behaviors at home. This case, along with several other recent cases, show a growing trend that courts are becoming impatient with parents who seek reimbursement and expenditure of public school funds to deal with students’ medical and delinquent behavioral issues. In this era of stressful financial times for individuals and school districts alike, many courts are appropriately recognizing that a school district’s responsibility is to educate; no more, and no less. As Judge Moseman aptly stated, “The District’s responsibility under the IDEA is to remedy the learning related symptoms of a disability, not to treat the underlying disability, or to treat other, non-learning related symptoms. The District certainly cannot begin treating a student’s underlying medical disability, whether it be ADHD or some other mental or physical disability. That responsibility rests with the parents and medical professionals.” Right indeed, Judge Moseman, right indeed.

© 2010 Mickes Goldman O’Toole, LLC