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Edmonds School District v. A.T.

United States District Court, W.D. Washington, Seattle

November 7, 2017

EDMONDS SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff,
v.
A.T., a minor child, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER AFFIRMING ADMINISTRATIVE DECISION AND GRANTING DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          ROBERT S. LASNIK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter comes before the Court on “Plaintiff Edmond School District's Motion for Summary Judgment” (Dkt. # 13) and defendants' cross-motion (Dkt. # 14). The school district appeals an administrative decision that it is financially responsible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq., for the costs associated with A.T.'s placement in a residential facility. The district maintains that the placement was necessitated by A.T.'s medical condition, not his educational needs, and is therefore not covered by the IDEA. A.T., on the other hand, argues that a residential placement was necessary for him to be able to benefit from the specially designed instruction set forth in his individualized education program (“IEP”).

         Through the IDEA, Congress offered states federal funds to assist in educating children with disabilities, but imposed a number of substantive and procedural conditions in exchange for the funds. Substantively, the state must provide a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to “all children with disabilities residing in the State . . ., including children with disabilities who have been suspended or expelled from school.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). The state has the obligation of identifying and evaluating children with disabilities and developing an IEP for each child. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(3) and (4). The IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances.” Endrew F. v. Douglas County Sch. Dist., RE-1, __ U.S. __, 137 S.Ct. 988, 999 and 1001 (2017).[1] To the maximum extent possible, children with disabilities are to be incorporated into the regular educational environment: separate classes, schools, or care facilities are permitted “only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A). Procedurally, the IDEA requires that parents be given written prior notice of and an opportunity to participate in any meetings related to the identification, evaluation, educational placement, and provision of FAPE to the child. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(1) and (3). Parents also have the right to seek mediation of disputes and/or an administrative hearing. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(5) and (6). A.T.'s parents requested a hearing on December 17, 2015, after unilaterally placing A.T. at Provo Canyon School, a residential facility in Provo, Utah. The Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) issued a fifty-one page decision on July 20, 2016, in which she concluded that:

• The district violated the IDEA, both substantively and procedurally.

• The parents' unilateral placement of A.T. at Provo was appropriate.

• The district must reimburse the parents for the Provo tuition and the adolescent transportation service that conveyed A.T. to Provo.

Dkt. # 1 at 55-56.[2] The district appealed to this Court.

         When reviewing a decision of an ALJ regarding the appropriateness of services offered under the IDEA, the Court must read the administrative record, consider any new evidence offered by the parties, “and make an independent judgment based on a preponderance of the evidence and giving due weight to the hearing officer's determinations.” Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 892 (9th Cir. 1995). The Court has discretion when determining what weight to give the ALJ's findings. In Wartenberg, the Ninth Circuit recognized that “[d]eference to the hearing officer makes sense in a proceeding under the Act for the same reasons that it makes sense in the review of any other agency action -- agency expertise, the decision of the political branches . . . to vest the decision initially in an agency, and the costs imposed on all parties of having still another person redecide the matter from scratch.” 59 F.3d at 891 (quoting Kerkam v. McKenzie, 862 F.2d 884, 887 (D.C. Cir. 1988)). In addition, a thorough and careful analysis by the ALJ increases the amount of deference that should be given to his or her findings. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1 v. B.S., 82 F.3d 1493, 1499 (9th Cir. 1996). The administrative decision in this case is comprehensive, detailed, careful, and well-reasoned: credibility and factual disputes are acknowledged and resolved with appropriate analysis, the factual bases for the legal conclusions are stated, and the correct legal standards are applied. The Court finds that deference to the ALJ's determinations is warranted, keeping in mind that it is ultimately the Court's obligation to determine whether the school district has complied with the procedural and substantive requirements of the Act and whether a placement is appropriate.

         Having reviewed the administrative record and the ALJ's decision, [3] and having heard the arguments of counsel, the Court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that:

A.T. was adopted by his foster parents when he was just under the age of four. He had a difficult and unsettled childhood before his adoption, including in utero exposure to drugs, numerous Child Protective Services allegations of abuse and neglect, a failed adoption, and an inability to form and/or maintain attachments. He had behavior and anger issues and was expelled from several daycare settings. A.T. attended school in the Edmonds School District from preschool to 10th grade. He always had an IEP, but his eligibility category changed over time. He was initially eligible for services based on the category “developmental delay, ” but the diagnoses for which he was later given services were attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (“ADHD”) and/or oppositional defiant disorder (“ODD”).
A.T.'s disabilities do not necessarily impair his intellect, but they give rise to behavioral, decision-making, and interpersonal problems. His IEPs have always been exclusively behavioral and for many years have included a Behavior Intervention Plan (“BIP”). The BIPs are only two pages long, but contain detailed information regarding A.T.'s behaviors, their root causes, what triggers them, what exacerbates them, how to respond to them, how to reinforce good behavior, and what consequences should follow inappropriate behavior. It is unclear whether this information was disseminated widely enough to be helpful to either A.T. or school staff. In November 2014, the dean of students was at a loss for how to deal with A.T., noting that discipline was ineffectual and that the school “might need to do a serious meeting with family, maybe shorten day and increase supervision even more. I don't know.” AR 1859. The two general education teachers who testified at the administrative hearing (both of whom taught A.T. in 9th and 10th grades) had never seen the BIPs.

         In January 2015, A.T. was found hiding in the girls' bathroom, having locked all of the stalls except for the one next to him and having stuffed toilet paper into the cracks of the door of the stall in which he was hiding. The district determined that this odd behavior was not a manifestation of A.T.'s ADHD and suspended him for eight days. Upon his return to school, A.T.'s behavioral interventions were altered, he was assigned a one-on-one aide, and he was given an opportunity to see the school's behavioral specialist, Christine Sutton. His IEP was not amended, however, and it is not clear how much time A.T. was given with Ms. Sutton. Ms. Sutton was aware that A.T.'s truancy had increased by fourfold between 9th and 10th grades, that his grades had plummeted, and that the bathroom incident was a recurring and unexplained event. She was concerned that A.T. might be having mental health problems and suspected that he was somewhere on the autism spectrum and had a disorder related to food. Nevertheless, she did not share these concerns with the parents or initiate a reevaluation of the student, apparently unaware that the district has an obligation to assess students in all areas of suspected disability. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(b)(3)(B).

         On his second day back at school after his suspension, A.T. refused his aide's request to take his assignments out of his backpack. The dean of students was called upon, but the stand off ended in a physical confrontation and the discovery that the backpack contained a powerful slingshot, 30 large ball bearings, and a lighter. A.T. was expelled[4] on January 22, 2015. The following week, the district held a thirty-minute meeting in which it determined that the incident was not a manifestation of A.T.'s ADHD and adopted a revised IEP. Although A.T.'s father signed the IEP, he stated that there was no discussion regarding its provisions or any changes to A.T.'s educational programming at the meeting. The IEP goals remained the same, with the baseline percentages and target percentages for each goal unchanged. The one-on-one aide and the time with Ms. Sutton that were granted after the initial suspension were not included in the January 2015 IEP.

         A.T. was either in juvenile detention or had run away from home throughout most of his 45-day suspension. The school district approved 75 minutes of behavioral tutoring per week during the suspension, the same amount he had been receiving at school pursuant to his IEP. The tutor had only one session with A.T., however, given A.T.'s detentions and elopements. No academic services were provided, although the district did approve on-line course work in March 2015. A.T. did not enroll in any on-line courses: the tutor had been advised that A.T.'s parents had taken away his computer access.

         In February 2015, Dr. Stacy Cecchet, a licensed psychologist, began evaluating A.T. as a result of a court order for diagnostic clarification. Dr. Cecchet ruled out a number of possible diagnoses, but found that A.T. had developed prodromal schizophrenia. Based on testing, an extensive record review, and interviews with the parents, A.T.'s juvenile probation officer, and Ms. Sutton, Dr. Cecchet estimated that the onset of the illness occurred in the fall of 2013, at the start of A.T.'s freshman year in high school. At the administrative hearing, Dr. Cecchet explained that schizophrenia has adverse impacts on both academic performance and A.T.'s ability to get himself to school. The cognitive disorganization that is a hallmark of the diagnosis, including hallucinations and hearing voices, means that it will “be very difficult to maintain an age-appropriate focus on your academic setting, whether that's participation in the classroom, social participation, homework completion, even just going in the right order of events that he needs to do throughout the day, different classes or P.E. or things like that.” AR 947. The combination of ADHD, prodromal schizophrenia, and attachment issues created a “perfect storm” leading to continuing issues with truancy. AR 950, 1015-16. A.T.'s impulsiveness due to the decrease in his prefrontal cortex and executive functioning led to snap decisions to leave home for any number of reasons, including arguments with his parents or a desire to go skateboarding. His cognitive disorganization would then cause him to be distracted from passing thoughts of returning home or to be unable to put together a plan for figuring out where he ...


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