Lowell Public Schools and Mass. Dept. of Children and Families – BSEA # 12-1912



<br /> Lowell Public Schools and Mass. Dept. of Children and Families – BSEA # 12-1912<br />

COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS

Division of Administrative Law Appeals

Bureau of Special Education Appeals

In Re: Lowell Public Schools & Mass. Dept. of Children and Families

BSEA # 12-1912

RULING ON REQUEST FOR STAY-PUT

This ruling is issued pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (20 USC 1400 et seq .), Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 USC 794), the state special education law (MGL c. 71B), the state Administrative Procedure Act (MGL c. 30A), and the regulations promulgated under these statutes.

I. INTRODUCTION

Pursuant to a 2008 settlement agreement, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Services (DCF) began paying the residential portion of Student’s placement at the Perkins School for the Blind (Perkins) in Watertown, MA, and continued to do so for two subsequent school years, but has recently discontinued funding. Lowell Public Schools (Lowell) continues to fund Student’s day placement at Perkins.

The instant ruling addresses the question of whether DCF is required, pursuant to “stay-put” principles within special education law, to continue funding the residential portion of Student’s placement at Perkins.

Student is represented by Anna Eliot, Lowell by Jane Mosher-Canty and Michael Ortiz, and DCF by Brian Pariser.

II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The following facts and procedural background are not in dispute.

Student is 12 years old. At all times relevant to this dispute, she has been in the custody of DCF and, when not residing at Perkins, lives with Mother in Lowell, MA (including weekends and school vacations while a residential student at Perkins). Student’s premature birth (at 25 weeks gestational age) has resulted in multiple, substantial disabilities that include retinopathy of prematurity, cerebral palsy, microcephaley and hypertonia. She presents with significant challenges within the cognitive, language, communication, social, sensory and behavior domains. See Student’s current IEP.

In the spring and early summer of 2008, Lowell, DCF (then known as the Massachusetts Department of Social Services or DSS) and the Student in the instant dispute were engaged in litigation before me at the BSEA to determine the extent of Lowell’s and DCF’s obligations, if any, to Student. Student, through her attorney, sought funding for a residential placement at Perkins. After commencement of the BSEA hearing and the testimony of one or more witnesses (including Student’s principal expert witness), the hearing was postponed at the request of the parties. The parties entered into a Settlement Agreement for purposes of resolving all issues in dispute. See Settlement Agreement, par. 1.

The Settlement Agreement, signed by the parties in July 2008, noted Student’s acceptance at a “5 day per week, 210 day school year, residential program at the Perkins School for the Blind for the 2008-2009 school year”. The Settlement Agreement required Lowell and DCF to “share equally the cost of the Student’s residential program at Perkins” with Lowell’s share “for Student’s educational program” and DCF’s share “for non-educational residential services.” See Settlement Agreement, pars. 2, 3.

The Settlement Agreement further provided as follows regarding DCF’s continuing obligations under the Agreement:

The Parties acknowledge that [DCF], in the exercise of its discretion under its custodial powers, has authority to change the residential services it provides to [Student] and may do so after the 2008-2009 school year. [Settlement Agreement, par. 12.]

Student attended the Perkins residential program for the 2008-2009 school year, as required by the Settlement Agreement. Student continued to attend this program for the next two school years—that is, 2009-2010 and 2010-2011—with DCF and Lowell continuing to jointly fund the residential program.

For each of these three school years, Lowell proposed IEPs that identified (on the placement page) Student’s placement as a day program at Perkins. However, within the additional information section, each IEP indicated that Student would be receiving residential services funded by DCF and each IEP, beginning with the IEP for the period 2/2/09 to 7/31/09, included a residential self-care goal and objectives under that goal. DCF did not sign any of the IEPs. All of the IEPs for these three school years were fully accepted by the Guardian Ad Litem on behalf of Student. See Student’s IEPs for these school years.

During a June 13, 2011 IEP meeting, a DCF representative stated that DCF would not fund Student’s residential services at Perkins for the next school year—that is, for the 2011-2012 school year. DCF did not fund residential services at Perkins for Student for the 2011-2012 school year, and as a result, Student is currently attending Perkins during the day and living at home.

The current IEP, which governs the period from 9/15/11 to 6/13/12, continues to identify (on the placement page) Student’s placement as a day program at Perkins but, in contrast to the previous IEPs, makes no reference to residential services. Student’s Guardian Ad Litem has rejected the IEP, in part, because it no longer includes residential services. See Student’s current IEP.

On September 20, 2011, Student filed a hearing request with the BSEA, seeking joinder of DCF and a stay-put order requiring DCF to fund Student’s residential services at Perkins.

On September 28, 2011 during a conference call with the Hearing Officer, DCF indicated that it did not oppose joinder, and Student’s joinder motion was allowed. During the same conference call, the parties agreed to amend the hearing request to include a substantive claim for residential services, to be funded by DCF or Lowell, and an evidentiary hearing was scheduled for December 2011 to address the merits of the underlying dispute.

With respect to the stay-put issue, arguments were filed on October 11, 2011, and a motion hearing was held at the BSEA offices on October 12, 2011.

III. DISCUSSION

Introduction

It is not disputed that Student is an individual with a disability, falling within the purview of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)1 and the Massachusetts special education statute.2

The IDEA was enacted “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education [FAPE] that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.”3

Consideration of Settlement Agreement

As explained in section II above, the parties entered into a Settlement Agreement relevant to their rights and responsibilities under the IDEA. I first determine whether I may consider the Settlement Agreement for purposes of resolution of this dispute.

BSEA Hearing Officers are split as to whether they may consider an agreement relative to a party’s rights and obligations under special education law.4 However, there is no disagreement among the courts. The courts have considered this question in 27 federal court decisions, including four circuit court decisions and one Massachusetts federal district court decision. All 27 decisions have affirmed the appropriateness of a Hearing Officer’s considering an agreement that impacts the parties’ rights and responsibilities under the IDEA; not one decision supports a Hearing Officer’s declining to do so.5

There are also policy and practical reasons for considering a relevant agreement. “If parents were not legally bound by a mediation or resolution/settlement agreement that they voluntary entered into and derived the full benefits of, query whether any school district would ever [enter] into … any type of agreement with parents [and] [t]he intent of the statutory and regulatory provisions with respect to mediation and resolution agreements would be effectively subverted.”6 In addition, “[i]f a BSEA Hearing Officer were to issue a decision resolving a special education dispute and determining the responsibilities of a school district without considering such an agreement, the decision will not have considered all applicable law, with the result that the decision will provide an incomplete (and in some cases, a legally incorrect) determination of the legal responsibilities of the school district to provide special education services to the student.”7

The principal, opposing legal argument is that the 2004 IDEA amendments expressly grant the authority to courts to “enforce” certain agreements but include no reference to the authority of Hearing Officers to do so.8 However, none of the court decisions that have addressed this issue subsequent to the 2004 amendments has accepted this argument and at least one has explicitly rejected it.9 In addition, a BSEA Hearing Officer’s ability to “consider” an agreement for purposes of resolving a special education dispute is fundamentally different than his or her authority to actually “enforce” the agreement.10 I therefore find no legal support for this argument.

For these reasons, I will consider the Settlement Agreement in the instant dispute.

Stay-put

The IDEA includes a stay-put provision that provides, inter alia, that “during the pendency of any proceedings conducted pursuant to this section, unless the State or local educational agency and the parents otherwise agree, the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement of such child.”11 Federal and state regulations include similar provisions.12

The instant dispute poses the issue of whether Student’s “then-current educational placement”—that is, Student’s stay-put placement—is the Perkins day program funded by Lowell or whether it is the Perkins residential program that has been jointly funded by Lowell and DCF.

I begin with the question of whether DCF is subject to the IDEA’s stay-put protections.

Student’s placement at Perkins was jointly funded by DCF and Lowell for three consecutive school years. This was originally reflected within the Settlement Agreement, which required the parties to jointly fund the residential program for the 2008-2009 school year.

The Settlement Agreement resolved a BSEA due process dispute in which DCF was joined, in part, because DCF could be ordered, pursuant to MGL c. 71B, s. 3, to provide Student with services in addition to those that are the responsibility of Lowell under the IDEA.13 The only premise upon which such additional services from DCF could be ordered by the BSEA is that DCF services may be necessary in order for Student to access or benefit from the special education services provided by Lowell.14 In order to settle its potential liability under MGL c. 71B, s. 3, DCF entered into the Settlement Agreement, providing that DCF and Lowell would jointly fund a residential program for Student, with DCF funding the residential services portion of the program. See Settlement Agreement, par. 1 (referencing DCF’s potential liability to provide additional services) and pars. 2, 3.

The Settlement Agreement did not require DCF to continue funding residential services after the 2008-2009 school year. But, DCF voluntarily continued funding of these same services for two subsequent school years, as is reflected within fully accepted IEPs. As will be discussed below, the DCF-funded residential services included special education.

Federal special education regulations provide that the IDEA applies to “all political subdivisions of the State that are involved in the education of children with disabilities” and is “binding on each public agency in the State that provides special education and related services to children with disabilities, regardless of whether that agency is receiving funds under Part B of the Act.”15 When DCF and Lowell jointly funded Student’s placement at Perkins through the Settlement Agreement initially and then through IEPs for two subsequent years, DCF became inextricably involved with Student’s special education and provided special education services to Student. I conclude that DCF must comply with IDEA stay-put protections in the instant dispute.

I now return to the stay-put principles under the IDEA to consider whether they require continuation of the DCF-funded residential portion of Student’s placement.

The essential term “then-current educational placement” is not defined within the IDEA16 or within federal or state regulations governing stay-put.17 “[C]urrent educational placement” may be understood as “refer[ing] to the operative placement actually functioning at the time the dispute first arises.”18 This comports with the essential purpose of stay-put, which is to continue the currently operative placement, thereby preserving the educational status quo, pending resolution of a dispute.19 From Student’s perspective, her educational status quo was the residential program that she was attending until DCF terminated funding.

DCF correctly points out that Student’s stay-put placement would normally be determined by the IEP that was operative when the dispute arose—that is, the last IEP in effect while Student was placed at the Perkins residential program.20 DCF also notes, again correctly, that the placement page of this IEP references only the Perkins day program. See IEP for the period 10/9/10 to 7/29/11. DCF also takes the position that, as a general rule, it does not fund or provide educational services and, through the Settlement Agreement, it agreed to fund only what are described in the Agreement as “non-educational” services. DCF further notes, again correctly, that stay-put refers only to an educational placement.

From this, DCF argues that Student’s placement for purposes of stay-put must be the educational day program that is funded by Lowell. However, for reasons explained below, I find that the operative IEP, when read in its entirety and within the context of the history of this dispute, clearly contemplates that Student would receive her education within an integrated residential educational program jointly funded by Lowell and DCF, making this her stay-put placement. See IEP for the period 10/9/10 to 7/29/11.

As noted above in section II, Student attended what was described in the Settlement Agreement as a “residential program” to be jointly funded by DCF and Lowell for the 2008-2009 school year. Settlement Agreement, par. 2. DCF and Lowell then voluntarily continued to fund this same “residential program” for the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years, as is reflected within the IEPs for those school years. Student was receiving her education within this placement when the dispute arose. See Settlement Agreement, pars. 2, 3; IEPs for the three school years.

The operative IEP for the 2010-2011 school year states that “the Department of Children and Families and Lowell Public Schools have agreed to [Student’s] continued placement at Perkins School for the Blind.” The IEP then states that “[w]hile placed residentially by DCF, the program staff is targeting the following skills for [Student].” The IEP then lists a “Residential Goal: Self-Care” that provides as follows: “Given a consistent structured approach, [Student] will improve her independence in functional, self-care skills in her evening routine with moderate assistance and verbal prompts as needed in 3 out of 4 trials.” The IEP then includes three specific objectives within this residential goal. See IEP for the period 10/9/10 to 7/29/11, page 23.

In addition, the residential and day portions of Student’s placement at Perkins do not function independently of each other; rather, they interrelate and support each other. For example, Student has substantial behavioral difficulties. Her operative IEP for the 2010-2011 school year contains the following language relative to her behavior difficulties: “[Student] has continued to receive behavior support services through weekly consultation to both the classroom and residential staff.” And, Student’s Behavior Support Plan (attached to the IEP) includes “specific strategies that are used with [Student] across the school and residential settings.” See IEP for the period 10/9/10 to 7/29/11, page 4.

This IEP further provides that one of the objectives under her “Residential Goal: Self-Care” (discussed above) is to prepare and utilize a toothbrush for brushing her teeth. This objective is identical to an objective under goal # 5 that is to be addressed during Student’s day program. See IEP for the period 10/9/10 to 7/29/11, pages 17, 23.

In addition, the IEP explains that “[Student] is working on a toileting program both at school and within the residence.” A “Toilet Training Plan” (attached to the IEP) is utilized to provide the same procedures, rewards and strategies both in the classroom and in the cottage. Her Behavior Support Plan (attached to the IEP) notes that Student’s “toilet training schedule [is to be used] consistently with [Student] throughout the school day and cottage hours.” See IEP for the period 10/9/10 to 7/29/11, page 23.

I find that the IEP makes clear that the residential services, funded by DCF, included special education services that were coordinated with the special education services that Student received within her day program, notwithstanding the earlier Settlement Agreement’s labeling the residential services as “non-educational”. See IEP for the period 10/9/10 to 7/29/11, page 23; Settlement Agreement, par. 3.

As discussed above, the essential purpose of stay-put is to preserve the educational status. Stay-put requires a fact-specific inquiry to ensure that during the pendency of a dispute, Student’s education is, as a practical matter, not unduly disrupted. This does not preclude every change with respect to a student’s operative placement, but court decisions are clear that when a proposed change in services would likely substantially change a student’s current educational services, then stay-put principles are implicated.21

On the basis of the above undisputed facts, I find that the residential services component of Student’s “residential program” and her day program are intertwined, with some of the same special education teaching and skill development occurring consistently across the school and residence domains, thereby reinforcing and supporting each other. I find that the residential services cannot simply be removed without likely making a substantial, detrimental and disruptive change to her special education.

I conclude that the termination of residential services would sufficiently change Student’s educational services so as to make the DCF-funded services subject to stay-put.22

DCF responds by arguing that even if stay-put rights exist with respect to the residential services, DCF cannot be ordered to fund any portion of a stay-put placement at Perkins. DCF views its placement of children within its custody as clinical decisions that are separate and distinct from providing residential services for the purpose of supporting a special education program. DCF thus argues that under its statutory and regulatory framework, “[its] placement decisions are not services … and as such cannot be considered to be services for the purposes of G.L. c. 71B.” DCF’s written argument, page 15.

I do not doubt DCF’s understanding of its statutory and regulatory authority, but I am not persuaded that its services cannot include “residential services” under MGL c. 71B. In its written argument, DCF acknowledges that it provides residential care for children with special needs pursuant to MGL c. 18(B), s. 2(8) (see also s. 2(7)) and that it provides the general service of “substitute care” which may include residential care pursuant to 110 CMR 7.100, et. seq. It is not disputed that when DCF places a child in a residential program, it then pays for the residential services within that program. Importantly, through the Settlement Agreement, DCF agreed to fund “residential services” in order to resolve any potential liability under MGL c. 71B, s. 3, and the Agreement references these residential services within the context of DCF’s “custodial powers”. See Settlement Agreement, pars. 1, 2, 3, 12; IEP for the period 10/9/10 to 7/29/11, page 23. And, of course, DCF actually funded residential services to Student for three school years for purposes of jointly funding Student’s residential program. It is not disputed that the term “services” as appearing within the BSEA’s statutory authority (MGL c. 71B, s. 3) is sufficiently broad to include residential services. For these reasons, I conclude that DCF’s statutory and regulatory framework does not preclude a BSEA Hearing Officer from ordering DCF to pay for residential services.

DCF’s second argument pertaining to the BSEA’s authority to order DCF to fund residential services is that even if such authority exits, it does not allow the BSEA to order DCF to fund a particular residential placement, such as Perkins. Relying upon Matter of McKnight , 406 Mass. 787, 798 (1990) and other Massachusetts Supreme Court (SJC) decisions, DCF argues that it has the right to decide, in its discretion, which particular provider will deliver any DCF-funded services.

However, a review of the SJC decisions relied upon by DCF does not fully support DCF’s position. These decisions have explained that there may be factual and legal contexts in which the general rule does not apply. For example, in Care and Protection of Isaac , 419 Mass. 602, 606-607, 646 N.E.2d 1034 (1995), the Court addressed this question as follows:

The “traditional rule” to which the department refers was set out in Matter of McKnight, 406 Mass. 787, 792, 550 N.E.2d 856 (1990), as follows: “A court, of course, may not properly exercise the functions of the executive branch of State government.” See Guardianship of Anthony, 402 Mass. 723, 727, [524 N.E.2d 1361] (1988). On the other hand, a court has the right to order the department to do what it has a legal obligation to do. Id. Attorney Gen. v. Sheriff of Suffolk County, 394 Mass. 624, 629-630 [477 N.E.2d 361] (1985). Where the means of fulfilling that obligation is within the discretion of a public agency, the courts normally have no right to tell that agency how to fulfill its obligation. Id. at 630 [477 N.E.2d 361] See Bradley v. Commissioner of Mental Health, 386 Mass. 363, 365 [436 N.E.2d 135] (1982). Only when, at the time a judicial order is entered, there is but one way in which that obligation may properly be fulfilled, is a judge warranted in telling a public agency precisely how it must fulfill its legal obligation . [Emphasis supplied.]

In other words, if I were to conclude that under MGL c. 71B, s. 3 “ there is but one way in which [DCF’s] obligation may properly be fulfilled”, then DCF may be ordered to fulfill its statutory obligation in that manner.

BSEA’s authority to order a particular placement pursuant to state and federal special education law is well established. BSEA decisions have routinely ordered school districts to provide or fund specific educational placements, and these decisions have been upheld by the courts.23 And, BSEA’s authority to order additional services under MGL c. 71B, s. 3 is properly interpreted to be consistent with its general authority and responsibility to ensure that Student receives FAPE, which may require that the residential services be provided within the same overall program as the day services, thus requiring that a particular residential placement be funded by DCF.

There can be little doubt that, in the instant dispute, DCF’s obligations under stay-put can be fulfilled in only one way, which would be the continuation of the residential services at Perkins. For these reasons, I am not persuaded by DCF’s argument.

Finally, I consider whether the parties, through the Settlement Agreement, waived DCF’s obligations under stay-put. As noted above in section II, the Settlement Agreement includes the following language:

The Parties acknowledge that [DCF], in the exercise of its discretion under its custodial powers, has authority to change the residential services it provides to [Student] and may do so after the 2008-2009 school year. [Settlement Agreement, par. 12.]

There is no dispute that this language, when read within the context of the Settlement Agreement, required that DCF fund residential services at Perkins for the entire 2008-2009 school year but for no subsequent period of time. In other words, the Settlement Agreement precluded DCF from changing residential services during the 2008-2009 school year but allowed it to do so after this school year.

No doubt that a waiver of stay-put is similar to DCF’s right to change the residential services after one school year. But, the important point is that they are not identical. This is illustrated by the fact that Student’s stay-put rights and DCF’s right to change services after the 2008-2009 school year can operate in tandem. If both stay-put and the above-quoted language from the Settlement Agreement apply, DCF would continue to have the right to change Student’s residential services after the 2008-2009 school year but may not do so in a way that would substantially diminish her educational services while any placement dispute is being resolved. This is precisely what is occurring in the instant dispute.

Because of the similarity between a waiver of stay-put and the above-quoted language in the Settlement Agreement, one might possibly imply a stay-put waiver from the Settlement Agreement, but I decline to do so. When a party, through an agreement, seeks to obtain a waiver of a particular right (such as stay-put) that is protected by the IDEA, the waiver must be both “clear and specific”.24

In the Settlement Agreement, the parties could have easily been “clear and specific” that Student had no stay-put right to residential services but did not do so—for example, the Agreement might have stated that Student waived any stay-put rights to a residential placement. Alternatively, the parties could have specifically identified (and agreed to) Student’s stay-put placement as the Perkins day program. Or, the Agreement could have provided that the residential services would continue only until a specific date, thereby making clear that the residential portion of the placement was time-limited, temporary and therefore not subject to stay-put protections.25

For these reasons, I conclude that Student’s stay-put placement is the Perkins residential program that has been jointly funded by Lowell and DCF, that the parties did not waive stay-put rights with respect to this placement, and that DCF should be ordered to resume funding.

This matter will proceed to an evidentiary hearing on the merits, as scheduled, beginning December 12, 2011 to determine Lowell’s and DCF’s obligations, if any, under MGL c. 71B and the IDEA to provide Student with a residential placement at Perkins.26

IV. ORDER

Student’s request for a stay-put order requiring DCF to continue funding residential services at Perkins is ALLOWED .

DCF shall immediately resume funding Student’s residential services at Perkins pursuant to Student’s stay-put rights.

By the Hearing Officer,

William Crane

Dated: October 19, 2011


1

20 USC 1400 et seq .


2

MGL c. 71B.


3

20 USC 1400(d)(1)(A). See also 20 USC 1412(a)(1)(A).


4

One BSEA Hearing Officer has declined to consider any agreement because “the BSEA exists to enforce the public duties set out in the IDEA and to ensure on behalf of individual students that those public responsibilities are appropriately developed, designed and implemented,” rather than to give effect to an agreement that includes “terms incompatible with the application of one or more of the IDEA’s mandatory substantive provisions.” In Re: Israel and the Monson Public Schools , BSEA #10-5064, 16 MSER 296 (August 23, 2010) (Byrne). Several other BSEA hearing officers consider agreements under certain circumstances—for example, to avoid an inequitable result where a parent has gained the full benefit of an agreement and now seeks to avoid his or her waiver of certain special education rights under that agreement, or where the parties have agreed that the BSEA has jurisdiction to consider the agreement. See, e.g., Student v. Ipswich Public Schools , BSEA # 11-7213, 17 MSER 135 (May 12, 2011) (Putney-Yaceshyn). Other BSEA Hearing Officers, for the reasons explained in the text above, generally consider any agreement relevant to a party’s rights and obligations under special education law.


5

See the following most recent decisions: Woods ex rel. T.W. v. Northport Public School , 2011 WL 1230813 (W.D.Mich. 2011) (indicating that it was appropriate for hearing officer to consider settlement agreement for purposes of exhaustion); S.B. v. District of Columbia ,  2011 WL 1740115, *8 (D.D.C. 2011) (“agreement reflects the educational choices that the key parties agreed were best for S.B. … hearing officer did not err in relying upon the settlement agreement in determining which related services Plaintiffs were entitled to receive reimbursement for”); D.B.A. ex rel. Snerlling v. Special School Dist. No. 1, Minneapolis, Minn. , 2010 WL 5300946, 4 (D.Minn. 2010) (Hearing Officer may review and interpret a settlement agreement for the purposes of determining whether it concerns the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of FAPE to the student); Springfield Local School Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Jeffrey B ., 2010 WL 4272607, 2 (N.D.Ohio 2010) (notwithstanding IDEA’s reference to enforcement of mediated settlement agreements in court, “it is undeniable that any breach of the settlement agreement is inextricably intertwined with the core decisions made by [a Hearing Officer]” regarding “the identification, evaluation or educational placement of a child with a disability, or the provision of FAPE to the child” and therefore the Hearing Officer has jurisdiction to consider the agreement); Washington v. California Dept. of Educ .  2010 WL 4157139, 6 (E.D.Cal. 2010) (where settlement agreement addressed student’s special education claims and dispute has not been considered by the administrative due process agency, dispute must be returned to administrative due process for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the IDEA). Previous decisions are collected in In Re: Longmeadow Public Schools , BSEA # 08-0673, 16 MSER 217, 110 LRP 39167, at footnote 53 (June 30, 2010) (Crane).


6

In Re: Jake (Masconomet Regional School District) , BSEA # 11-2194, 16 MSER 408 (November 15, 2010) (Oliver).


7

In Re: Longmeadow Public Schools , BSEA # 08-0673, 16 MSER 217 (June 30, 2010) (Crane).


8

See 20 U.S.C. §1415(e)(2)(F)(ii) and (iii); 20 U.S.C. §1415 (f)(1)(B). See also 34 CFR §300.506 (b)(6)(ii) and (7); 34 CFR 300.510(c)(1).


9

A substantial number of the 27 relevant court decisions (referenced above) were issued subsequent to the 2004 amendments (15 of the 27 decisions, including all four the circuit court decisions, were issued after January 2007). These decisions have either ignored this argument or considered and rejected it. One decision ( Springfield Local School Dist. Bd. of Educ. v. Jeffrey B ., 2010 WL 4272607, *2 (N.D. Ohio 2010)) explained as follows:

The parties’ agreement provides as follows: “This is a mediated settlement agreement enforceable in federal court.” There is little doubt that this provision is a reference to similar language in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). While it is clear that Congress intended to provide a forum in both state and federal court for parents claiming breach of mediated settlement agreements, it is equally clear that Congress intended for IHO’s [Impartial Hearing Officers] to have broad authority in resolving matters in this highly specialized area of law. 34 C.F.R. § 300.507(a)(1) allows a parent to file a due process complaint on any matter related to “the identification, evaluation or educational placement of a child with a disability, or the provision of FAPE to the child.” In that regard, it is undeniable that any breach of the settlement agreement is inextricably intertwined with the core decisions made by an IHO.


10

See, e.g., H.C. v. Colton-Pierrepont Cent. School Dist . , 2009 WL 2144016 (2 nd Cir. 2009) (“ due process hearing before an IHO [impartial hearing officer] was not the proper vehicle to enforce the settlement agreement” but IHO had responsibility to “ consider the settlement agreement to the extent it might have been relevant to the issue before him, i.e., whether H.C.’s 2006-07 IEP provided her with a FAPE”); A.R. v. New York City Department of Education , 407 F.3d 65, n.13 (2 nd Cir. 2005) (although the terms of a special education Hearing Officer’s decision are enforceable by a court, “[Hearing Officers], as is common in administrative procedures, have no enforcement mechanism of their own”).


11

20 USC § 1415(j).


12

34 CFR § 300.518; 603 CMR 28.08(7).


13

See my joinder ruling in the previous dispute, In Re: Lowell Public Schools , BSEA # 08-4003 (February 19, 2008) (“the BSEA may need to order DSS to provide services in addition to the special education and related services that are the responsibility of Lowell. Pursuant to the above-quoted statutory authority, this may be justified in the event that DSS services are necessary to ensure that Student will be able to access or benefit from Lowell’s special education program and services”).


14

See. Id . and cases cited therein at footnote 2.


15

34 CFR §300.2 (b) . See also King v. Pine Plains Cent. School Dist ., 918 F.Supp. 772, 780 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) (finding that the IDEA applies to a local DSS office).


16

See 20 USC § 1415(j).


17

See 34 CFR § 300.518; 603 CMR 28.08(7).


18

L.Y. ex rel. J.Y. v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ ., 384 Fed. Appx. 58, 61, 2010 WL 2340176, *2 (3 rd Cir. 2010) (quoting Thomas v. Cincinnati Bd. of Educ., 918 F.2d 618, 625-26 (6th Cir. 1990)).


19

See CP v. Leon County School Bd. Florida , 483 F.3d 1151, 1156 (11th Cir. 2007) (“provision amounts to, in effect, an automatic preliminary injunction, maintaining the status quo and ensuring that schools cannot exclude a disabled student or change his placement without complying with due process requirements”); Verhoeven v. Brunswick School Committee , 207 F.3d 1, 3, 10 (1st Cir. 1999) (preservation of the status quo ensures that the student remains in the last placement that the parents and the educational authority agreed to be appropriate).


20

See, e.g., L.Y. ex rel. J.Y. v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ ., 384 Fed. Appx. 58, 61, 2010 WL 2340176, *2 (3 rd Cir. 2010) (“If an IEP has been implemented, then that program’s placement will be the one subject to the stay-put provision”).


21

E.g., Hale v. Poplar Bluff R-1 School District, 280 F.3d 831 (8th Cir. 2002) (determination of whether there has been a change in student’s “then-current educational placement” is a “fact-specific” inquiry that considers the impact of a change of placement on student’s education); Tennessee Department of Mental Health v. Paul B ., 88 F.3d 1466 (6th Cir. 1996) (“must identify a detrimental change in the elements of an educational program in order for a chance to qualify for the stay-put provision”); Sherri A.D. v. Kirby, 975 F.2d 193, 206 (5th Cir. 1992) (change in student’s stay-put placement occurs only when “a fundamental change in, or elimination of, a basic element of the educational program has occurred”); DeLeon v. Susquehanna Community School District , 747 F.2d 149, 153-154 (3rd Cir. 1984) (“touchstone in interpreting section 1415 has to be whether the decision is likely to affect in some significant way the child’s learning experience”).


22

To my knowledge, there have been only two BSEA rulings and one court decision that have addressed the question of whether services or placement funded by DCF are subject to the IDEA’s stay-put protections. The first BSEA ruling, in 1993, held that because DSS (now DCF) “voluntarily entered into an agreement to provide special education and related services to Jeremy, and it in fact provided those services …, DSS became subject to the provisions of the IDEA, including the stay-put procedures ….” The BSEA Hearing Officer ordered DSS “to provide for and fund” the student’s current special education summer program. In Re: Jeremy L ., BSEA # 93-2353 (July 8, 1993). Jeremy is somewhat different than the instant dispute because, in Jeremy, DSS had expressly agreed to provide special education services and there was no agreement that DSS could change services. However, Jeremy’s discussion of the essential principles regarding the applicability of stay put to DSS apply to the instant dispute and provides useful support for the instant Ruling. I also note that in both Jeremy and the instant dispute, DSS/DCF did not sign the IEP establishing the student’s stay-put placement.

In the second, more recent BSEA ruling, DCF had placed the student at St. Vincent’s day school and residential program (St. Vincent’s). Although St. Vincent’s apparently served as the student’s actual educational program for two years, the Hearing Officer found that it may not be considered to be the student’s “then-current educational placement” for purposes of stay-put. The Hearing Officer noted that an educational placement is to be determined on the basis of a student’s IEP, but the St. Vincent’s placement occurred entirely separate from the IEP process. More specifically, DCF had unilaterally placed the student at St. Vincent’s and then fully paid for this placement over two years, without participation of or agreement by the school district or the IEP Team. In re: New Bedford Public Schools and Cody , 15 MSER 324, BSEA # 09-3103 (February 5, 2009).

On appeal, the Superior Court agreed, reasoning that “St. Vincent’s had not even been considered during the IEP process and was chosen unilaterally and for clinical, not educational, reasons by the DCF, which does not make educational placements, after it succeeded the plaintiff as the Student’s custodian.” Jane Doe v. Mitchell D. Chester, et al. , Suffolk Superior Court, CA No. 2009-1050-B (March 29, 2011) (unpublished).

This BSEA ruling and court decision are easily distinguished from the instant dispute because Student’s placement at Perkins was jointly agreed to (and funded by) DCF and Lowell, as reflected first within the Settlement Agreement and then within fully-accepted IEPs.


23

See, e.g., Mohawk Trail Regional School Dist. v. Shaun D. ex rel. Linda D . , 35 F.Supp.2d 34 , ( D.Mass. 1999) ( affirming BSEA Hearing Officer’s determination that school district was responsible for student’s placement at Whitney Academy); In Re: Southwick-Tolland Regional School District , BSEA # 06-6583, 12 MSER 279 (SEA MA 2006) (ordering student’s placement at the White Oak School), aff’d CA No. 07-30010-MAP (D.Mass. 2008) (unpublished); In Re: Manchester-Essex Regional School Dist. School Committee , BSEA # 04-5309, 11 MSER 62 (SEA MA 2005); (ordering school district to send student to the Active Healing program for purposes of evaluation), rev’d on other grounds, 490 F.Supp.2d 49 ( D.Mass. 2007) ; In Re: Lunenburg Public Schools , BSEA # 05-0799, 10 MSER 518 (SEA MA 2004) (ordering residential placement of student at the Franklin Perkins School), aff’d CA No. 04-12695-NMG (D.Mass. 2007) (unpublished); In Re: Southwick-Tolland Regional School District , BSEA # 06-6583, 12 MSER 279 (SEA MA 2006) (ordering student’s placement at the White Oak School), aff’d CA No. 07-30010-MAP (D.Mass. 2008) (unpublished).


24

See W.B. v. Matula , 67 F.3d 484, 498, 67 F.3d 484 (3 rd Cir. 1995) (“while we do not hold that settlement agreements which include a waiver of related claims in the IDEA context are per se invalid, we will apply the more searching standards reserved for waivers of civil rights claims” and therefore will inquire “whether the agreement is clear and specific as to a waiver”); Cavalieri v. Copeland , 2008 WL 4083030, *6 (E.D.Pa. 2008) (court may consider “whether the waiver language is clear and specific”); Rochester Community School Corp. v. Honeywell, Inc ., 2007 WL 2473464, *6 (N.D. Ind. 2007) (“waiver must be clear and specific”); Somoza v. New York City Dept. of Educ .; 475 F.Supp.2d 373, 388 (S.D.N.Y. 2007) (court considered whether the language waiving an IDEA claim was clear and specific); Doe ex rel Doe v. State of Hawaii Dept. of Educ ., 351 F.Supp.2d 1021, 1025 (D.Hawaii 2004) (same).


25

See Verhoeven v. Brunswick School Committee , 207 F.3d 1, 10 (1 st Cir. 1999) (finding that a time-limited placement is temporary and therefore may not be a student’s stay-put placement).


26

The hearing is scheduled for December 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 19, 2011, from 9:30 AM to 5:00 PM (or later) on each day except December 19 th when the hearing will end by 1:00 PM .


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