Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Does Not Require Receipt Of Special Education Services Prior to Seeking FAPE Reimbursement for Private Placement of Disabled Student

In an important ruling supportive of parental and student rights to a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE), the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 20 U.S. C. §§ 1400, et seq.) does not require receipt of prior special education services before a student is entitled to reimbursements for placement in a private school. The case is Forest Gove School District v. T.A. The student involved in the Forest Grove case had been diagnosed as suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He attended classes in the district from the time he was in kindergarten through the winter of his junior year in high school. The parents had contacted the district to discuss the student’s problems, and he was evaluated by a school psychologist. However, the district concluded the student did not require further testing for learning disabilities, and took the position that the student did not qualify for special education services. The parents did not seek review of that decision. After extensively working with their son so he could complete his sophomore year, the parents sought private professional advice and were advised that their son suffered from ADHD and that he would do best in a structured, residential housing environment. After getting that advice, the parents enrolled their son at a private academy that focused on students with special needs. The parents then retained counsel and gave the district written notice of the private placement. They also requested a “due process” hearing under the IDEA statute to determine their son’s eligibility for special education services, including reimbursement for the costs of private placement. The hearing officer concluded that the district did not offer the student a FAPE; that placement at the private school was appropriate; and that the district was obligated to reimburse the parent for the cost of that placement, as well as their attorney’s fees can costs in seeking relief under the IDEA statute. The Forest Grove decision rests on an earlier precedent (School Comm. Of Burlington v. Dept. of Ed. Of Mass., 471 U.S. 359 (1985)), which held that courts have the power to order school authorities to reimburse parents for their expenditures on private special education services if the court ultimately determines that such placement, rather than a proposed in-district Individual Educational Plan (IEP), is proper. In 1997, some twelve years after the Burlington case was decided, Congress amended the IDEA statute. In the Forest Grove case, the question was whether the amendment required a result different from that announced in the Burlington case. The Supreme Court said no – the amendment of the IDEA statute did not alter the central purpose of the law which is to ensure that all children with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and to assure that the rights of such children and their parents and guardians are protected. The amendment to the IDEA statute preserves the central purpose of providing a FAPE to all children with disabilities. A copy of the Forest Grove opinion is attached.