Northbridge Public Schools – BSEA # 09-2533



<br /> Northbridge Public Schools – BSEA # 09-2533<br />

COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS

BUREAU OF SPECIAL EDUCATION APPEALS

In Re: Northbridge Public Schools BSEA # 09-2533

RULING ON MOTION TO COMPEL INDEPENDENT EVALUATOR ACCESS

On October 14, 2008, Student’s attorney filed a Motion to Compel Independent Evaluator Access to School Staff ( Motion to Compel ). The attorney for Northbridge Public Schools (Northbridge) filed an opposition, Student filed a response to the opposition, and Northbridge filed a further response. A telephonic motion hearing was held on October 24, 2008.1

In order to apprise the parties in a timely manner and after considering the written and oral arguments of the parties, I issued an order allowing the Motion to Compel on October 24, 2008. This Ruling sets forth my analysis of the dispute and reasons for allowing Student’s Motion to Compel .

The dispute pertains to the question of whether Student’s independent evaluator may speak with school district staff who have been providing special education services to Student.

Student is being educated in a substantially-separate program at Northbridge High School. Student filed his hearing request for the purpose of establishing that this program is not appropriate and cannot be made appropriate to address Student’s educational needs. Student asks that the BSEA order an out-of-district residential program. Northbridge takes the position that its program is appropriate, and therefore Student’s request for a residential placement should be denied.

Student seeks to have his expert consultant and evaluator, James Luiselli, EdD, conduct an independent educational evaluation of Student. The independent evaluation is to include the following five parts: 1) observation of Student at school and home settings, 2) interviewing educational personnel, 3) interviewing Parents, 4) review of records, and 5) preparation of a written report. Luiselli affidavit, par. 4. Northbridge agrees that Dr. Luiselli may observe the Northbridge program but has forbidden Dr. Luiselli from speaking to Student’s special education teacher. Through his Motion to Compel , Student seeks to require Northbridge to allow Dr. Luiselli to speak with Student’s special education teacher.2

As a preliminary matter, Northbridge has objected to my holding a hearing on Student’s Motion to Compel during the time period in which Northbridge is required to hold a resolution session. Northbridge takes the position that holding a motion hearing during the resolution period timeframe is contrary to Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) Hearing Rule 1(F) and does not comport with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) as amended in 2004. Before turning to the merits of Student’s Motion to Compel , I consider this objection.

Northbridge’s arguments are not supported by language in the BSEA Hearing Rules and the IDEA. BSEA Hearing Rule 1(F) provides that a hearing may not be held in response to a parent’s hearing request until one of the following has occurred: a resolution meeting has taken place, fifteen calendar days have passed since receipt of the hearing request, the parties have agreed to participate in mediation in lieu of a resolution meeting, or the parties have waived the resolution meeting. The relevant language in Rule 1(F) reads: “a hearing cannot be held in response to a parent’s hearing request [emphasis in original]” indicating that what is referenced is a hearing that addresses the parent’s or student’s hearing request. As discussed above, the issue for consideration and requested relief in Student’s Motion to Compel is separate and distinct from the issue for consideration and requested relief in Student’s hearing request.

Rule 1(F) is prefaced by the language “Under the IDEA,” indicating that the BSEA Hearing Rule is based upon requirements found within the IDEA. Similarly, Northbridge relies upon the IDEA. I therefore turn to the relevant language within the IDEA for further guidance.

The IDEA provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

Resolution session.          (i) Preliminary meeting. Prior to the opportunity for an impartial due process hearing under subparagraph (A) , the local educational agency shall convene a meeting with the parents and the relevant member or members of the IEP Team who have specific knowledge of the facts identified in the complaint– ….3

The statutory language “impartial due process hearing under subparagraph (A)” refers to the hearing regarding a parent’s “complaint,” which is the term used by the IDEA to refer to a hearing request.4 The language makes clear that the prohibition relates to a hearing on the merits regarding a parent’s hearing request.

The federal regulations addressing this part of the statute further explain that the referenced “impartial due process hearing” is intended to address the issues raised within the due process complaint or hearing request. No reference is made to a hearing on a motion that is intended to address an ancillary issue, such as the scope of an evaluation.5

Accordingly, I can find nothing within the BSEA Hearing Rules or the IDEA that would preclude a motion hearing from occurring within the timeframe for conducting a resolution session.

Nevertheless, BSEA Hearing Officers have, as a matter of general practice, sought to limit substantive discussions with parties during the first fifteen days of the resolution timeframe. This serves the important purpose of allowing the parties an opportunity to resolve the matter informally prior to the parties’ representatives spending time litigating a motion or addressing a substantive matter with the Hearing Officer. Although this general rule of practice serves the BSEA process well, there is no requirement that it be followed with respect to each part of every proceeding before the BSEA, particularly where the harm to the parties (as a result of an earlier BSEA consideration) is minimal and the need for prompt resolution by the BSEA is apparent. I therefore turn to a discussion of these considerations in the instant dispute.

Northbridge has not alleged harm as a result of what it perceives to be a too-early motion hearing.6 The Student’s hearing request was received on October 10, 2008. Under the IDEA, Northbridge had fifteen days to convene a resolution meeting.7 The last school day to do so would have been Friday, October 24, 2008. The motion hearing occurred at 3:00 p.m. on October 24, 2008. Northbridge has made no claim that it has had insufficient opportunity to conduct a resolution session prior to the motion hearing; rather, on October 30, 2008, the parties advised the Hearing Officer that they had not convened a resolution meeting because they had waived it.

The independent education evaluation in the instant dispute is necessary to assess Student’s educational needs and the appropriateness of Northbridge’s program to meet those needs. Student’s obtaining the results of this evaluation is likely to be an essential first step in any resolution of the instant dispute, as well as in the preparation for an evidentiary hearing on the merits. Moreover, once the Hearing Officer resolves the parties’ instant dispute regarding the parameters of the independent education evaluation, it may take a number of additional weeks before the evaluation can be completed and a report written. For these reasons, I find it important that the BSEA address Student’s Motion to Compel expeditiously.

Accordingly, I do not find Northbridge’s objection regarding the timing of the motion hearing to be persuasive.

I now turn to the merits of Student’s Motion to Compel .

The Massachusetts special education statute and the regulations promulgated thereunder provide that a parent has the right to obtain an independent education evaluation at private expense at any time.8 (The independent education evaluation in the present dispute is to be paid for privately, rather than by Northbridge.) It is not disputed by the parties that a parent also has the right to observe any program proposed for their son or daughter, and similarly a parent may have his or her evaluator observe the program.9

Disputes regarding the appropriateness of a school district’s placement are often decided on the basis of the credibility and persuasiveness of expert testimony. It is not uncommon for parties before the BSEA to disagree regarding the credibility and persuasiveness of the opinions of the various expert witnesses. A school district attorney may argue, for example, that the parent’s expert was not able to obtain sufficient understanding of the proposed program and the student’s progress within it, and therefore the expert was not able to provide persuasive and credible testimony.

Decisions by BSEA Hearing Officers have reflected these arguments, often commenting on the ability (or lack of ability) of parent’s expert to render a persuasive opinion, depending upon the Hearing Officer’s assessment of the thoroughness and appropriateness of the expert’s evaluation. In making this assessment, a number of BSEA decisions have noted the relevance of whether the expert spoke with the classroom teacher and other school district staff responsible for educating the student.

For example, a recent BSEA decision noted the weakness in the parents’ case because their evaluators did not speak with the teachers:

Central Berkshire and Pittsfield are correct that a weakness in Parents’ case is the fact that the independent evaluators did not speak with teachers and in district service providers before or after the evaluations. As a result, Central Berkshire argued that Parents’ experts lacked a whole picture of Student and her functioning in Pittsfield.10

Another BSEA decision did not credit the testimony of parent’s expert, in part, because the expert did not ask questions of the student’s teachers:

I did not credit the testimony of Lori Chartier regarding the observations she made of Student’s program. I did not find that she was qualified to assess a high school program for a student with Student’s profile as she had never taught high school and by her own admission was not very familiar with Student’s profile before observing her in her program. Additionally, Ms. Chartier made assumptions about modifications not being provided to Student based upon her limited observation and did not ask teachers questions regarding whether they were providing accommodations.11

In another decision, the BSEA hearing officer discounted the weight afforded parent’s expert testimony, in part, because the expert did not speak with those with experience working the student:

Dr. Green (a licensed/certified school psychologist retained by Parent) demonstrated significant knowledge and expertise relevant to Student and her disabilities. Her formal evaluation provided useful information for purposes of assessing both Student’s progress and her capacity to make progress. Her work on behalf of school districts gave her added credibility as a witness for Parent. The weight given to her testimony was somewhat reduced by the fact that she neither observed Student in the classroom nor spoke with those with experience working with Student in the classroom .12

A BSEA decision has also noted that an expert had sufficient understanding of the student, in part, because the expert had spoken with student’s teacher and others involved in the student’s education:

I also found Dr. Souweine to have a more detailed and more complete understanding of the Brighter Beginnings program than Dr. Kemper. Her observation was for a longer period of time and (as compared to Dr. Kemper’s sporadic discussions with two teachers), Dr. Souweine had substantive discussions with Mr. Kimball (a teacher), Dr. Stolar (supervisor of special education at Chicopee), Susan Fino (the consultant to the program) and Mr. Schreier (director of special education for Chicopee) regarding the Brighter Beginnings program. I found Dr. Souweine to be an intelligent, thoughtful and careful witness with sufficient understanding of Nelida. I fully credit her testimony.13

Finally, in determining that the expert’s evaluation and observation was comprehensive and appropriate, a BSEA hearing officer noted as relevant that the expert interviewed student’s teachers:

Dr. Muzio has significant experience as a clinical psychologist evaluating, observing and making recommendations regarding children with disabilities similar to Student. She has worked in an evaluative/consultative capacity for 20 years, and as a school psychologist within a public school setting since 1998. She combines sophistication in testing, with a practical understanding of educational environments. In her testimony regarding the infrequency of her recommending a substantially separate placement for a special needs child, Dr. Muzio was convincing that she understands and values the need to mainstream children into the public school setting whenever possible. She reviewed Student’s educational records (including the past psychological and other assessments, and the most recent IEPs), interviewed Student’s parents, observed Student in his program at Eagle Mountain School (spending 2 ½ hours at the School), observed the proposed program offered by Gill-Montague (spending 2 ½ hours at the program), interviewed teachers at both places , interviewed and observed Student, and conducted a number of standardized tests of Student as part of her psychological evaluation of him.

I find that Dr. Muzio attained a detailed and sophisticated understanding of Student, and that her evaluation and observation of Student were comprehensive and professional.14

Similarly, a court has made clear that when a special education hearing officer determines how much reliance to place upon the parent’s expert testimony, the hearing officer should consider, among other things, whether parent’s expert spoke with the student’s teachers, assistants, and other service providers.15

In another court decision, the following cross-examination of a parent’s expert witness illustrates the importance of the expert’s talking to the student’s teacher for purposes of evaluating the student’s progress within (and therefore the appropriateness of) the school district’s program:

Q. So would you be surprised to learn that [Student] had made progress in her educational program at school?

A. No. most children make some progress.

Q. And you didn’t talk to the teachers about her progress, did you?

A. No I did not.

Q. So you really can’t comment upon whether or not she made progress at school, can you?

A. Only by the reports that I looked at.

Q. And the reports don’t really comment about progress, do they?

A. No.16

I now turn to the context of the instant dispute. Dr. Luiselli’s affidavit (par. 3) states that over the past thirty years, he has consulted with numerous school districts in Massachusetts and surrounding states. The affidavit (pars. 3, 7) then explains as follows:

In accordance with professional protocol, my consultation and evaluation with school districts has always included direct observation of students’ educational programs and interviews with pertinent staff. I have conducted numerous evaluations for school district over the years, and they have always complied with this standard.…

I cannot complete a thorough and proper evaluation unless I am allowed to speak with the personnel who implement [Student’s] educational plan. As part of an evaluation, I need to ask questions of pertinent staff to clarify and get their impressions regarding [Student’s] development over the course of years, understand how [Student’s] IEPs have been formulated, and understand the nature of how he has progressed.… To not be able to speak with relevant educational staff would be a substantial omission in regard to my professional practice and I would be limited in my ability to assess student programming and make recommendations.

Dr. Luiselli’s expert qualifications for purposes of this evaluation are not in dispute. (Student provided a copy of Dr. Luiselli’s resume.) Dr. Luiselli’s opinion is entitled to due deference as to what must be included within his evaluation in order for the evaluation to be valid and reliable.17 For example, a qualified independent evaluator conducting a neuropsychological evaluation would typically be the best person to determine, without interference from an opposing party, what test instruments are to be used as part of the evaluation in order for the evaluation to serve its intended purposes.

In sum, Student has the statutory and regulatory right to obtain an independent evaluation at private expense. BSEA and judicial decisions illustrate the relevance and importance of an independent evaluator’s speaking to pertinent staff (including the student’s teacher) as part of this evaluation. Dr. Luiselli’s affidavit states his opinion that speaking to Northbridge staff who implement Student’s education plan is an essential component of his evaluation, and this opinion is entitled to due deference.

For these reasons, I find that Dr. Luiselli’s speaking with Northbridge staff who implement Student’s education plan is a material part of an independent education evaluation, to which Student is entitled.

Northbridge makes a number of arguments to the contrary. First, Northbridge takes the position that were Dr. Luiselli allowed to speak with the teacher as part of Dr. Luiselli’s observation, this would disrupt the “ongoing classroom activities and delivery of instruction to students.” Northbridge further claims that speaking with the teacher would “undermine the integrity of the educational program on the day of an observation solely to accommodate a parent’s or evaluator’s demand to question program staff of their selection.” Yet, as Student’s attorney made clear in oral argument, Dr. Luiselli’s talking to Student’s teacher need not disrupt the classroom activities or instructions to Student. Dr. Luiselli will be able to arrange to speak with Student’s teacher (and other pertinent staff) at a time and place that is not disruptive to the classroom activities and instruction and that will not interfere with the integrity of the program.

Second, Northbridge argues that given the pending litigation before the BSEA, requiring Northbridge staff “to submit to direct interrogation by a private consultant who has been identified and retained by the law firm representing the Guardian and who may reasonably be expected to testify” would be “prejudicial and without legal basis.” Northbridge further argues that the order sought by Student is “akin to a motion to take the deposition of a potential witness prior to hearing.” These arguments erroneously seek to equate a professional education evaluation with discovery undertaken by the parties for purposes of litigation, and they fail to take into consideration Student’s regulatory right to have a private independent education evaluation at any time .18

Finally, Northbridge takes the position that it should be sufficient for Dr. Luiselli to speak only with Northbridge’s on-staff behavioral consultant, Dr. Deborah Plaude, and the Northbridge chairperson of Student’s IEP Team, Virginia Edwards. Northbridge asserts that Dr. Plaude and Ms. Edwards have been directly involved with Student’s current programming and are “fully capable of responding to questions that the private consultant may have regarding the program that he is to observe.” Northbridge argues further that in the event that Dr. Luiselli has questions that cannot be addressed immediately by these two Northbridge staff or by reference to documents in Student’s record, “such questions may appropriately be directed through the Guardian’s legal counsel to the counsel for the District either informally or via formal interrogatories.”

In effect, Northbridge would like to control, rather than allow Dr. Luiselli to determine, whom he should have access to for purposes of obtaining information relative to Dr. Luiselli’s independent education evaluation of Student. For the reasons explained below, I find that where this argument is being made to preclude Dr. Luiselli from speaking with Northbridge staff who implement Student’s education plan, the argument is antithetical to the essential purposes of an independent education evaluation.

The United State Supreme Court has had occasion to consider the procedural protections provided parents through the IDEA and the importance, in particular, of a parent’s right to an independent education evaluation. The Court wrote:

As noted above, parents have the right to review all records that the school possesses in relation to their child. § 1415 (b)(1). They also have the right to an “independent educational evaluation of the[ir] child.” Ibid. The regulations clarify this entitlement by providing that a “parent has the right to an independent educational evaluation at public expense if the parent disagrees with an evaluation obtained by the public agency.” 34 CFR § 300.502 (b)(1) (2005). IDEA thus ensures parents access to an expert who can evaluate all the materials that the school must make available, and who can give an independent opinion. They are not left to challenge the government without a realistic opportunity to access the necessary evidence, or without an expert with the firepower to match the opposition.19

In this part of its opinion, the Court was referring to the right of a parent to obtain an independent education evaluation at public expense pursuant to the IDEA. However, regardless of the source of funding, the independent education evaluation serves the identical purpose of leveling the playing field. As the Court explained, the independent education evaluation gives parents the opportunity to access information held by the school district and to match the school district’s expertise and understanding of the student.

I find that the integrity and usefulness of Dr. Luiselli’s evaluation would be compromised and the essential purposes of his independent education evaluation would be undercut if Northbridge were allowed to preclude his access to Northbridge staff who are implementing Student’s education plan, such as Student’s special education teacher.

For these reasons, I conclude that Dr. Luiselli must be allowed to speak with pertinent program staff, including but not limited to, Student’s special education teacher.20

ORDER

Student’s Motion to Compel is ALLOWED . Provided, however, Dr. Luiselli shall speak with pertinent program staff at a time and place that will not disrupt ongoing classroom activities or delivery of instruction to students. Northbridge staff shall make themselves available for this purpose.

By the Hearing Officer,

_________________

William Crane

Date: October 30, 2008


1

Student is represented by attorney Janine Solomon. Northbridge is represented by attorney Matthew MacAvoy.


2

More specifically, Student’s Motion to Compel seeks an order from the BSEA compelling Northbridge to allow Dr. Luiselli “to speak with pertinent program staff during a scheduled school observation.” The Motion to Compel explains that Northbridge has given permission for Dr. Luiselli to speak with the Northbridge behaviorist but has not allowed Dr. Luiselli to speak with Student’s special needs teacher of the last ten years. Student takes the position that if Northbridge were to succeed in not allowing Dr. Luiselli to have access to Student’s teacher, Dr. Luiselli “would be limited in his ability to assess student programming and make recommendations.” Northbridge’s opposition takes the position that Student’s argument (that Dr. Luiselli’s evaluation would be impaired by his inability to speak with Northbridge staff of his choosing, including Student’s teacher) is “entirely speculative and without any factual basis.”


3

20 USC § 1415 (f)(1)(B) (emphasis supplied).


4

20 USC § 1415 (f)(1)(A).


5

34 CFR § 300.510 and 300.511(d).


6

See Roland M. v. Concord Sch. Comm., 910 F.2d 983, 994-95 (1st Cir. 1990) (failure to follow IDEA procedures has no legal consequence unless harm can be shown).


7

20 USC § 1415 (f)(1)(B)(i)(I).


8

MGL c. 71B, s. 3 (“A parent may obtain an independent evaluation at private expense from any specialist.”); 603 CMR 28.04 (5)(b) (“The parent may obtain an independent education evaluation at private expense at any time.”).


9

603 CMR 28.07(1)(a)3 (“Parents have the right to observe any program(s) proposed for their child if the child is identified as eligible for special education services.”)


10

In Re: Pittsfield Public Schools & Central Berkshire Regional School District , BSEA # 08-4603, page 26 of slip opinion (October 3, 2008) (emphasis supplied).


11

In Re: Springfield Public Schools , BSEA # 06-2169, page 19 of slip opinion (July 10, 2006) (emphasis supplied).


12

In Re: Southwick-Tolland Regional School District , BSEA # 06-6583, 12 MSER 279, page 21 of slip opinion (October 26, 2006) (emphasis supplied).


13

In Re: Chicopee Public Schools , BSEA # 05-2920, 11 MSER 87, page 20 of slip opinion (June 8, 2005) (emphasis supplied).


14

In Re: Gill-Montague Regional School District , BSEA # 01-1222, 7 MSER 194, page 27 of slip opinion (August 17, 2001) (emphasis supplied).


15

Faulders ex rel. Faulders v. Henrico County School Bd. , 190 F.Supp.2d 849, 853-54 ( E.D.Va. 2002), rev’d on other grounds , 326 F.3d 560 (4 th Cir. 2003).


16

School Board of Independent School Dist. No. 11, Anoka-Hennepin v. Pachl ex rel. Pachl , 2002 WL 32653752, *7 ( D.Minn. 2002).


17

Cf. 34 CFR § 300.304(c)(1)(iii) (assessments and other evaluation materials used to assess a student are to be used for the purposes for which the assessments or measures are valid and reliable).


18

603 CMR 28.04 (5)(b) (“The parent may obtain an independent education evaluation at private expense at any time.”).


19

Schaffer v. Weast , 546 U.S. 49, 60-61 ( 2005). See also 34 CFR 300.502(e) (limiting the conditions that a school district may impose upon a parent’s independent education evaluation obtained at public expense).


20

Both parties have also cited to Chapter 363 of the Acts of 2008, which was signed by the Governor on October 10, 2008, but is not yet in effect. I comment briefly on, but do not rely upon, this recent statute. Chapter 363 gives parents and guardians broad authority to have their expert observe and evaluate the student’s current and proposed educational programs. Pursuant to this statute, the school district must provide “access of sufficient duration and extent to enable [parents’ expert] to evaluate a child’s performance in a current program and the ability of a proposed program to enable such child to make effective progress.” The statute allows a school district to impose conditions or limitations on the observation (such as precluding the evaluator from speaking with certain school district staff during an observation) only as “necessary to ensure the safety of children in a program or the integrity of the program while under observation or to protect children in the program from disclosure by an observer of confidential and personally identifiable information in the event such information is obtained in the course of an observation by a parent or a designee.” I find that my ruling in the instant dispute conforms to these principles.


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