Appeals court expands parent rights to ‘stay put’ rule

Appeals court expands parent rights to ‘stay put’ rule

(Pa.) In what may prove a sweeping expansion of parental rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal appellate court has ordered a school district to pay private tuition costs even while upholding most of a judgment that administrators didn’t violate a student’s rights.

A two-judge panel of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals issued the complex but potentially precedent-setting ruling earlier this month that throws the long-held legal parameters surrounding IDEA’s “stay put” rules into question that in the past limited school liability when parents voluntarily moved a child during a dispute period.

At issue were the educational needs of a female kindergarten student enrolled at a Philadelphia-area school district in the fall of 2006 and persistent claims from her parents that she was learning disabled.

An initial evaluation while she was still in kindergarten found she did not qualify for special education services but testing conducted while she was in first grade found a learning disability in the areas of math, reading, reasoning skills and writing. Officials at the Ridley School District offered two placement options that the parents rejected.

Prior to the student beginning second grade, her parents voluntarily moved their child to a private school and filed a due process complaint alleging the district failed to provide a “free and appropriate public education.”

A hearing officer later ruled that Ridley had not violated IDEA during the child’s kindergarten year but did when the student was in first grade, saying the services finally offered were inadequate. Thus the parents were awarded compensatory education for the 2007-08 school year, tuition at the private school for 2008-09 and transportation expenses to the private school.

Ridley filed a petition for review in the U.S. District Court and in 2011, the district judge gave a split decision – affirming the hearing officer on the kindergarten year but reversing the findings for first grade and claims that the services offered were inadequate.

The district court’s ruling was upheld this month by the circuit court, although Ridley is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But most important, the appeals court also ruled that the student was entitled to remain at her “then-current” placement – at the private school – and that her parents should still be reimbursed for the tuition. Thus upsetting the long-standing “stay put” rules.

The “stay put” provisions of IDEA are generally aimed at state and local educational agencies, preventing schools from changing a student’s placement – including disciplinary action – during any due process proceeding.

It requires that a child remain in the interim alternative educational setting pending the hearing officer’s decision or until the expiration of the required time period, whichever occurs first – except when both parents and the LEA agree on a different placement.

In analysis published by The Legal Intelligencer last week, attorneys Megan E. Grossman and Ryan G. Gatto noted that the Ridley decision – if allowed to stand – will create new fiscal uncertainties for schools even though they may be acting in accordance with law.

“If Ridley stands, a school will not know how to make a student "stay put" while appellate courts review the merits of the case – should it follow the ruling of the hearing officer or district court?” the attorneys questioned. “Indeed, a school may program correctly, but still be forced to provide educational services deemed unnecessary by the IDEA. Undoubtedly, distinctions in each case could arise that would free schools from such a catch-22, but as mentioned by the frustrated district court, “rectifying the dilemma created here … is best left to Congress.”

Grossman and Gatto, from the Philadelphia firm of Segal McCambridge Singer & Mahoney, point out that although Ridley successfully proved that it could provide adequate special education services and private placement was unnecessary – the appeals court said the girl needed to be kept at the private school and that the district must pay for the placement.

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