Ishmael and Duxbury Public Schools – BSEA # 09-1986
COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS
BUREAU OF SPECIAL EDUCATION APPEALS
In Re: Ishmael1 and Duxbury Public Schools
BSEA # 09-1986
This decision 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.
A hearing was held on November 6, 2008 in Malden, MA before William Crane, Hearing Officer. Those present for all or part of the proceedings were:
Janet Miller Tutor, Duxbury Public Schools
Patricia Weatherlow Special Education Teacher, Duxbury Public Schools
Wayne Frieden School Psychologist, Duxbury Public Schools
Jim Shillinglaw Interim Special Education Director, Duxbury Public Schools
Colby Brunt Attorney for Duxbury Public Schools
Maureen Pires Court Reporter
The official record of the hearing consists of documents submitted by Mother and marked as exhibits P-1 through P-12 and P-14 (Mother withdrew exhibit P-13); documents submitted by the Duxbury Public Schools (Duxbury) and marked as exhibits S-1 through S-7; and approximately four hours of recorded oral testimony and argument. Father, who intervened as a party and participated in the hearing, did not submit exhibits. As agreed by the parties, written closing arguments were due on December 10, 2008, and the record closed on that date.
SUMMARY OF THE DISPUTE
This dispute is limited to the question of whether Duxbury has been implementing Student’s academic support services consistent with the current IEP, which runs from May 2008 to May 2009. A previous Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) decision, dated October 30, 2008, found the current IEP to be appropriate.2
Mother takes the position that the academic support services must be provided through 1:1 instruction throughout the classroom period and that, even if the services can be properly provided without 1:1 instruction, they have been inconsistently and inappropriately implemented, with the result that her son has suffered significant stress and has turned in assignments late. Duxbury takes the position that there is nothing within the IEP (nor was there anything discussed at an IEP Team meeting) that would indicate that the academic support services are to be provided through 1:1 instruction, and that Duxbury has consistently and appropriately implemented these services pursuant to the current IEP. Father agrees with Duxbury.
For reasons explained below, I agree with Duxbury and Father.
The issues to be decided in this case are the following:
1. Is Duxbury currently (and during the current school year, has Duxbury been) implementing the academic support services in accordance with the current IEP (May 2008 to May 2009)?
2. If not, what compensatory education (if any) is due?
STUDENT PROFILE AND IEP
The BSEA issued a Decision, dated October 30, 2008, involving the identical parties to the instant dispute. The dispute addressed the appropriateness of the current IEP. I will summarize briefly (from that Decision) Student’s educational strengths and weaknesses.
Student is a senior at Duxbury High School. Standardized intellectual functioning tests place his cognitive potential in the superior range (full scale IQ 128). During his junior year in high school (2007-2008 academic year), Student pursued a full, college-preparatory academic load, including Honors level and Advanced Placement level courses, earning A’s and B’s in all courses. Student intends to apply to selective four year colleges and to pursue studies in engineering.
Student has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and depression, and he has exhibited weaknesses in organization and homework completion.
The current IEP (May 2008 to May 2009) calls for Student to receive the following direct services:
· Academic support from special education staff for 68 minutes, 2.5 times per seven-day cycle.
· Counseling from a school psychologist for 30 minutes, once per week.
The IEP also provides for transition services for 30 minutes, twice yearly. Exhibits P-2, S-4.
In the October 30, 2008 Decision regarding the parties to the instant dispute, the BSEA determined that this proposed IEP is reasonably calculated to provide Student with a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
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)3 and the Massachusetts special education statute.4 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.”5 The Massachusetts special education statute also includes a FAPE requirement.6 FAPE must be provided in the least restrictive environment.7 In the instant dispute, as the moving party, Mother has the burden of persuasion.8
The focus of this dispute is whether Student has been receiving, since the beginning of the current school year, the academic support services that Student is entitled to receive pursuant to the current IEP. A preliminary question to be answered is whether the academic support services must be provided on a 1:1 basis. Mother has taken the position that the current IEP requires that these services be provided through 1:1 instruction during the entire academic support period.
Unambiguous language in an IEP should be interpreted according to its terms.9 There is nothing ambiguous about the academic support services described in the current IEP. The IEP simply calls for 68 minutes of academic support services, to be provided 2.5 times per seven-day cycle. The IEP makes no reference to any expectation that these services are to be provided on a 1:1 basis. Exhibits P-2, S-4.
Even if I were to consider evidence outside of the four corners of the IEP document, the result would be the same. A review of the transcript of the May 2008 IEP meeting, at which this IEP was developed, reveals no indication that the academic support services are to be provided on a 1:1 basis, and it appears that this issue has not been addressed in an IEP Team meeting at least since 2006. Testimony of Weatherlow; exhibit S-6.
For these reasons, I find no support for Mother’s position that the academic support services must be provided on a 1:1 basis. I now turn to the question of whether the academic support services, as reflected within the current IEP, are being appropriately implemented by Duxbury.
Student’s current IEP references academic support services in two principal places. First, the service delivery grid provides that academic support is to be provided by special education staff for 68 minutes, for 2.5 times per seven-day cycle. Second, Goal # 3 of the current IEP, which pertains to academic support services, provides that Student is to find and practice strategies that allow him to become more organized so as to successfully complete his homework assignments on time. The following objectives appear under this goal: (1) Student will use his agenda on a daily basis to record information, (2) Student will record not only due dates for long-term assignments, but reminders and “false” deadlines for completion of components of the assignment, and (3) Student will receive his anticipated work schedule on a weekly basis, with periodic review. Exhibits P-2, S-4.
Duxbury has been providing Student with academic support services that are delivered as follows. For approximately 10 to 15 minutes at the beginning of the 68-minute period, the academic tutor (Ms. Miller) reviews with Student his agenda (which is Student’s record of what school work needs to be done and by when), long-term calendar, organization of school work, priorities, and assignments. At some point typically near the middle of the period, the special education teacher (Weatherlow) also engages Student for similar purposes. Student, the academic tutor, and the special education teacher discuss together what Student should work on during the period although ultimately it is Student who has responsibility for determining his own priorities as to what work is to be done. Testimony of Miller, Weatherlow.
If Student is working on math or physics or if he is reading a book during the academic support period, the tutor and teacher monitor Student but are likely to allow him to work without interruption or assistance, unless Student requests help. If Student is writing an essay during this period, the academic tutor or special education teacher is likely to assist Student with editing or organization. The difference in involvement of the tutor and teacher reflects that in certain areas, Student needs assistance and in other areas, he does not. During the entire academic support period, Student is under the supervision of the academic tutor. These services have been consistently delivered to Student since the beginning of the current school year. Testimony of Miller, Weatherlow.
Although academic support services may vary for each student depending on the particular needs of the individual student, the academic support services being provided Student, as described above, are generally the kind of services that Duxbury delivers to other students whose IEPs call for these kinds of services. The principal exception is that academic support services provided to students with significant cognitive deficits require teacher assistance during much or all of the entire period. Testimony of Miller, Weatherlow.
This evidence is persuasive that Duxbury’s academic support services are being (and have been during the course of the current school year) provided consistent with Student’s IEP.
Mother criticized Duxbury’s implementation of academic support services by pointing to particular days during which she believes that her son did not receive appropriate academic support instruction or assistance. For example, she testified that at various times during the academic support periods, long-term projects were ignored by Duxbury staff; Student was allowed to do work that was not a priority; Student worked on a personal essay that had already been turned in to his English teacher; and Student was allowed to talk with other students for a significant part of one period instead of working on his long-term assignments. Testimony of Mother.
Mother testified that as a result of her son’s not receiving appropriate academic support, he has fallen behind in his school work, missed assignment deadlines, and encountered significant mental health difficulties. It is not disputed that, at times, Student has demonstrated stress (evidenced as dizziness and headaches) as a result of his school work, although more recently, he appears to be doing better in this regard. Testimony of Mother, Frieden.
It seems clear from the testimony that Mother’s ideas as to what should be emphasized by Duxbury staff and Mother’s ideas as to what Student should be doing during the academic support period vary, at times, with what the Duxbury staff has done or what the staff has permitted Student to do.
It is relevant to note that Student is very bright, he is a senior, and he is preparing to attend college next school year. Intentionally, Duxbury staff do not dictate to Student how he should be spending his time during the academic support period, but rather work with him to allow him to understand his priorities and how to complete his work on time—that is, the point of the academic support services is not only to have Student complete his academic work successfully, but additionally and, perhaps more importantly, to develop organizational skills that are important now and will become even more important when he attends college. After input from and discussions with the Duxbury staff, it is intentionally left to Student to decide how to use his time. Testimony of Parent, Miller, Weatherlow. I can find nothing inappropriate regarding Duxbury’s approach. It therefore is perhaps predictable (and is acceptable) that Duxbury’s academic support services will not necessarily result in Student’s always completing his work on time or always using his time to address the highest priority areas of school work.
I also note that Mother is likely correct that academic support services have not been delivered flawlessly by Duxbury. It seems likely that from the beginning of the school year, there were several periods where the instruction may not have been completely adequate or where Student was not provided sufficient supervision for the entire period. Testimony of Mother.
For purposes of Parent’s compensatory education claim, however, Duxbury is not held to a standard of perfection. In order to obtain compensatory services, a parent generally must show more than a de minimus failure by a school district, with courts recognizing that inevitably the special education and related services due any student will not necessarily be delivered flawlessly.10 I find that the extent of Duxbury’s failure to implement the IEP has been minimal and not sufficient to warrant compensatory relief.
In sum, Duxbury provided credible and persuasive evidence that it is providing (and has been providing since the beginning of the current school year) Student with academic support services as described in his current IEP. Mother has not met her burden of persuasion that the delivery of Student’s academic support services is so flawed or so inconsistent as to reflect a failure of Duxbury to implement appropriately these services.
For these reasons, I find that Duxbury has been (and is) properly implementing the academic support services, as reflected within the current IEP (May 2008 to May 2009). Any implementation failures by Duxbury are de minimus . Accordingly, Parent is not entitled to compensatory relief.
Duxbury is (and has been during the current school year) in substantial compliance with the current IEP with respect to academic support services, with the result that no compensatory education is due.
By the Hearing Officer,
Dated: December 16, 2008
COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS
BUREAU OF SPECIAL EDUCATION APPEALS
THE BUREAU’S DECISION, INCLUDING RIGHTS OF APPEAL
Effect of the Decision
20 U.S.C. s. 1415(i)(1)(B) requires that a decision of the Bureau of Special Education Appeals be final and subject to no further agency review. Accordingly, the Bureau cannot permit motions to reconsider or to re-open a Bureau decision once it is issued. Bureau decisions are final decisions subject only to judicial review.
Except as set forth below, the final decision of the Bureau must be implemented immediately. Pursuant to M.G.L. c. 30A, s. 14(3), appeal of the decision does not operate as a stay. Rather, a party seeking to stay the decision of the Bureau must obtain such stay from the court having jurisdiction over the party’s appeal.
Under the provisions of 20 U.S.C. s. 1415(j), “unless the State or local education agency and the parents otherwise agree, the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement,” during the pendency of any judicial appeal of the Bureau decision, unless the child is seeking initial admission to a public school, in which case “with the consent of the parents, the child shall be placed in the public school program”. Therefore, where the Bureau has ordered the public school to place the child in a new placement, and the parents or guardian agree with that order, the public school shall immediately implement the placement ordered by the Bureau. School Committee of Burlington, v. Massachusetts Department of Education , 471 U.S. 359 (1985). Otherwise, a party seeking to change the child’s placement during the pendency of judicial proceedings must seek a preliminary injunction ordering such a change in placement from the court having jurisdiction over the appeal. Honig v. Doe , 484 U.S. 305 (1988); Doe v. Brookline , 722 F.2d 910 (1st Cir. 1983).
A party contending that a Bureau of Special Education Appeals decision is not being implemented may file a motion with the Bureau contending that the decision is not being implemented and setting out the areas of non-compliance. The Hearing Officer may convene a hearing at which the scope of the inquiry shall be limited to the facts on the issue of compliance, facts of such a nature as to excuse performance, and facts bearing on a remedy. Upon a finding of non-compliance, the Hearing Officer may fashion appropriate relief, including referral of the matter to the Legal Office of the Department of Education or other office for appropriate enforcement action. 603 CMR 28.08(6)(b).
Rights of Appeal
Any party aggrieved by a decision of the Bureau of Special Education Appeals may file a complaint in the state court of competent jurisdiction or in the District Court of the United States for Massachusetts, for review of the Bureau decision. 20 U.S.C. s. 1415(i)(2).
An appeal of a Bureau decision to state superior court or to federal district court must be filed within ninety (90) days from the date of the decision. 20 U.S.C. s. 1415(i)(2)(B).
In order to preserve the confidentiality of the student involved in these proceedings, when an appeal is taken to superior court or to federal district court, the parties are strongly urged to file the complaint without identifying the true name of the parents or the child, and to move that all exhibits, including the transcript of the hearing before the Bureau of Special Education Appeals, be impounded by the court. See Webster Grove School District v. Pulitzer Publishing Company , 898 F.2d 1371 (8th Cir. 1990). If the appealing party does not seek to impound the documents, the Bureau of Special Education Appeals, through the Attorney General’s Office, may move to impound the documents.
Record of the Hearing
The Bureau of Special Education Appeals will provide an electronic verbatim record of the hearing to any party, free of charge, upon receipt of a written request. Pursuant to federal law, upon receipt of a written request from any party, the Bureau of Special Education Appeals will arrange for and provide a certified written transcription of the entire proceedings by a certified court reporter, free of charge.
“Ishmael” is a pseudonym chosen by the previous Hearing Officer in this dispute to protect the privacy of the Student in documents available to the public.
Ishmael v. Duxbury Public Schools , BSEA # 08-3479 and # 08-4805.
20 USC 1400 et seq .
MGL c. 71B.
20 USC 1400(d)(1)(A). See also 20 USC 1412(a)(1)(A).
MGL c. 71B, ss. 1, 2, 3.
The phrase “least restrictive environment” means that, to the maximum extent appropriate for the particular student, the student is to be educated with other students who do not have a disability. 20 USC 1400(d)(1)(A); 20 USC 1412(a)(1)(A); 20 USC 1412(a)(5)(A); MGL c. 71B, ss. 2, 3; 34 CFR 300.114(a)(2(i) ; 603 CMR 28.06(2)(c).
Schaffer v. Weast , 546 U.S. 49, 62(2005) (burden of persuasion in an administrative hearing challenging an IEP is placed upon the party seeking relief; a party who has the burden of persuasion “ loses if the evidence is closely balanced” ).
Cf. Alison H. V. Byard , 163 F.3d 2, 6 (1 st Cir. 1998) (where wording of a contract is unambiguous, it must be enforced according to its terms).
See Houston Independent School District v. Bobby R ., 200 F.3d 341, 348-49 (5 th Cir. 2000) (“to prevail on a claim under the IDEA, a party challenging the implementation of an IEP must show more than a de minimis [sic] failure to implement all elements of that IEP”). See also Van Duyn v. Baker School Dist. 5J , 481 F.3d 770 ( 9 th 2007) (“ when a school district does not perform exactly as called for by the IEP, the district does not violate the IDEA unless it is shown to have materially failed to implement the child’s IEP. A material failure occurs when the services provided to a disabled child fall significantly short of those required by the IEP.”); Melissa S. v. Sch. Dist. of Pittsburgh , 2006 WL 1558900 (3 rd Cir. 2006) (adopting Bobby R . standard); Neosho R-V Sch. Dist. v. Clark , 315 F.3d 1022, 1027 n.3 (8 th Cir. 2003) (citing Bobby R . with approval).