September 23, 2016
Despite having already been placed in a Residential Treatment Center by the Department of Children and Family Services, School District found to Deny Student a FAPE by Predetermining Placement at a Nonpublic School and Failing to Discuss the Educational Need for a More Restrictive Environment at Multiple IEP Meetings
On September 16, 2016 the U.S. District Court, Central District of California issued a Memorandum and Order on Appeal from Administrative Law Judge's Decision ("the Order"), reversing and remanding an administrative decision related to school districts' obligations under the federal act entitled Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA").
The underlying case was heard at a due process hearing before an administrative law judge ("ALJ") with the California Office of Administrative Hearings ("OAH") as its tribunal. Petitioner was a student who qualified for special educational and related services under the IDEA category of Emotional Disturbance (ED). She has been categorized to have severe emotional disturbance.
The student in the underlying case (M.S.) was at the time of the proceedings, a teenager in her high school years. Student had experienced an extremely difficult upbringing, including witnessing the sudden death of her mother at the age of four. In 2010, when M.S. was eleven years old, she was removed from her caretaker grandparents' care after allegations of physical abuse. At that time, she became a ward of the Los Angeles County Superior Court and DCFS. As a result and in accordance with California state law, DCFS has been responsible for providing her with suitable housing and for meeting her mental health needs.
While DCFS was charged with providing an appropriate housing situation, LAUSD was charged with providing her with an appropriate educational situation.
Due to M.S.'s severe emotional disturbance, she exhibited extreme violence and aggression toward others, ran away repeatedly. Further, she experienced repeated mental health hospitalizations continuing over years and years. By 2012, she had been hospitalized six times and had been in eight different out-of-home placements. The placements included foster homes and numerous residential placements, including placement at a locked facility, Harbor View Adolescent Center in May 2012. While at Harbor View, M.S. was arrested for assault and battery and was detained in Central Juvenile Hall for seven months.
Following her juvenile detention, M.S. was placed by DCFS at another locked residential treatment center ("RTC") called Vista Del Mar Community Treatment Center ("Vista Facility"), a Licensed Children's Institution ("LCI"), with a Rate Classification Level of 14. The reasoning behind such a restrictive residential placement for M.S. was related to the fact that she met certain state-required criteria regarding her mental health and behavioral issues requiring intensive psychiatric care.
Meanwhile, she was attending a nonpublic school ("NPS") within the locked facility.
LAUSD figured they had their bases covered in terms of offering an appropriate placement for M.S., since she was already placed in a locked facility by DCFS. Interestingly, the ALJ who heard the case agreed with LAUSD. This proved to be a huge mistake and amounted to a denial of a free and appropriate education (FAPE), as so eloquently laid out by the U.S. District Court.
During the time M.S. was in the locked residential facility and LAUSD offered her attendance at the NPS within it, LAUSD held multiple IEP meetings. During the meetings, the IEP team failed to discuss the continuum of placement options available to M.S. (i.e. general education setting, special day class, NPS, or RTC). Instead they felt that they need not offer an RTC, since she had already been placed in one by DCFS. According to the IDEA and the higher court's reversal, LAUSD was wrong, and their actions amounted to serious denial of FAPE.
Even though Student was residentially placed by DCFS, LAUSD still had a duty under the IDEA to offer an appropriate educational placement for Student. In this case they failed to discuss whether M.S. would require an RTC placement for educational purposes. Such a failure amounted to a "predetermination" and a denial of FAPE.
-Elizabeth Curtis, Esq.