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Reimbursement for Private Placement Not Always Proper Under FAPE Rules
Under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq.) all students are entitled to a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE). In some cases, a public school cannot provide adequate educational resources for a child with special needs. In such cases, placement in a private school or facility may be authorized at public expense. There are instances in which parents, at odds with local school officials, opt to remove their child from the public school system, place the student in a private facility, and then seek reimbursement from the public school district. In some cases, the courts have awarded reimbursement (as well as attorneys’ fees), but in others, courts have denied reimbursement. The difficult issue is knowing which cases quality for reimbursement and which do not. Two recent decisions from the Ninth Circuit help clarify this issue. The cases both involved the Ashland School District in Oregon. The cases are Ashland School District v. Parents of E.H. and Ashland School District v. Parents of R.J. Copies of the court opinions are attached. In the case involving E.H., a hearing officer found for the parents, ordering reimbursement for the private placement for their son. The District Court reversed. The judge conducted an independent review of the hearing officer’s conclusions and found that the parents had not complied with the notice procedures under the IDEA statute and, furthermore, that the student’s problems were medical, and not educational. The student’s difficulties stemmed from deep psychological problems (he had tried to commit suicide on two occasions). The court found that the private placement was to deal with the psychological issues, not for educational reasons. In the case of R.J., the court ruled that reimbursement was not required for a residential school placement (a private boarding school was involved) because the placement was not for educational reasons, but rather for non-educational reasons (the student had various difficulties with socialization and conduct, as opposed to learning disabilities). What is worthy of note in these cases is that the parents won before the administrative hearing officer, only to lose when the matter reached the courthouse. In both cases, the school district appealed the hearing officer’s order to federal district court. After giving the hearing officer’s conclusion “due weight” the court disagreed with them and ruled that reimbursement was not required under the IDEA statute. As the Ninth Circuit observed, “in the end, the court is free to determine independently how much weight to give the state hearing officer's determinations.” The trial judge has considerable discretion in these cases; to overturn a hearing officer’s determination, one need not show “clear error” or an “abuse of discretion”; all that is required is that the court, after giving weight to the findings, concludes independently that the statute calls for a different result.