Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. D.C. No. CV-92-05526-RJB. Robert J. Bryan, District Judge, Presiding
Before: Wright, Kozinski and Fernandez, Circuit Judges.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., parents and school officials must try to reach agreement on the appropriate educational program for a disabled student. We consider what happens when they fail.
Ryan K. is a fifteen-year-old student with Tourette's Syndrome and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Prior to the events giving rise to this litigation, Ryan received special education services while enrolled in mainstream schools in the Puyallup School District. Between mid-January and mid-March 1992, Ryan's behavioral problems at Ballou Junior High School escalated dramatically. He frequently disrupted class by taunting other students with name-calling and profanity, insulting teachers with vulgar comments, directing sexually-explicit remarks at female students, refusing to follow directions, and kicking and hitting classroom furniture. In addition, Ryan was involved in several violent confrontations. On January 27, he received a one-day suspension for punching another student in the face. On February 10, he received a second suspension for pushing another student's head into a door. Finally, on March 12, Ryan was removed from school pursuant to an emergency expulsion order after he assaulted a school staff member.*fn1
Ryan's parents, Clyde and Sheila K., agreed with school officials that it was no longer safe for Ryan to remain at Ballou. Ryan's teachers and school administrators met shortly after his expulsion to discuss available alternatives. They suggested placing Ryan temporarily in an off-campus, self-contained program called Students Temporarily Away from Regular School (STARS), where Ryan would be in a more structured environment and receive more individualized attention. On March 17, 1992, the school notified Ryan's parents of its recommendation that Ryan be placed in STARS on an interim basis until he could be safely reintegrated into regular school programs.
Though Ryan's parents initially agreed with the school's proposed change of placement, they subsequently had second thoughts. On March 27, 1992, they requested a due process hearing under Wash. Admin. Code § 392-171-531; on April 6, they formally rejected placement at STARS until a new Individualized Education Program (IEP) had been drafted. After efforts to draft a new IEP broke down, Ryan's parents insisted that he return to Ballou for the remainder of the school year. Over the summer, a ten-day due process hearing was held pursuant to 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(2). The administrative law Judge issued her ruling on September 14, 1992, concluding that the school fully complied with the IDEA. The parents appealed to the district court, which, after hearing additional testimony and reviewing the record of the administrative proceedings, affirmed the ALJ's decision in all material respects on March 23, 1993.*fn2
As a preliminary matter, the parties disagree over who should have borne the burden of proof in the district court. The school clearly had the burden of proving at the administrative hearing that it complied with the IDEA. Ryan's parents contend the burden of proof remained on the school in the district court as well, even though they were the ones appealing the administrative ruling. Generally, the party challenging an agency's decision bears the burden of proof. Whether the IDEA calls for an exception to this general principle has yet to be decided in this circuit.
The parents rely on Oberti v. Board of Educ., 995 F.2d 1204 (3d Cir. 1993), which held that the burden of proof remains on the school even if the school prevails at the administrative hearing. The court in Oberti stated that placing the burden of proof on the school is essential to ensure that parents' rights under the IDEA aren't undermined. Id. at 1219. We note, however, that merely because a statute confers substantive rights on a favored group does not mean the group is also entitled to receive every procedural advantage. Absent clear statutory language to the contrary, procedural questions are resolved by neutral principles that are independent of any particular statute's substantive policy objectives. Allocation of the burden of proof has long been governed by the rule that the party bringing the lawsuit must persuade the court to grant the requested relief. Because we find nothing in the IDEA suggesting that a contrary standard should apply here, we join the substantial majority of the circuits that have addressed this issue by placing the burden of proof on the party challenging the administrative ruling. See Roland M. v. Concord Sch. Comm., 910 F.2d 983, 991 (1st Cir. 1990); Kerkam v. McKenzie, 274 U.S. App. D.C. 139, 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1988); Spielberg v. Henrico County Pub. Sch., 853 F.2d 256, 258 n.2 (4th Cir. 1988).
Ryan's parents allege various procedural violations of the IDEA. We address each of these in turn.
A. On March 11, 1992, after Ryan had been suspended twice for assaulting other students, the school hired an aide to observe Ryan's behavior over a three-day period. The aide was hired at the urging of Ryan's doctors, who suggested that a first-hand report on his behavioral problems would be helpful in evaluating appropriate responses. Ryan's parents claim the school violated ...