West Springfield Public Schools – BSEA #02-3063
COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS
BUREAU OF SPECIAL EDUCATION APPEALS
In re: West Springfield Public Schools
This decision is issued pursuant to M.G.L. c. 71B and 30A, 20 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq. , U.S.C. 794, and the regulations promulgated under these statutes. A hearing was held in the above-entitled matter on May 23, 2002, at the offices of Catuogno Reporting Services in Springfield, MA. Those present for all parts of the proceeding were:
Mr. & Mrs. Parents
Michelle Sevart Consultant, May Institute
James Boone ETL, West Springfield Public Schools
Kristi Erricolo Special Education Teacher, West Springfield
Kathleen Bousquet Psychologist, West Springfield Public Schools
Donald Snyder Administrator of Special Services, West Springfield Public Schools
Regina Tate Attorney for West Springield Public Schools
Lindsay Byrne Hearing Officer, BSEA
The official record of the hearing consists of: documents submitted by the School marked S-1 through S-83; documents submitted by the parents marked P-1 through P-6; and approximately 5 hours of recorded oral testimony. The School requested the hearing on February 22, 2002, to show the appropriateness of the substantially separate special education program it proposed for the Student, and which the Student attended during the 2001-2002 school year. The parents challenged the appropriateness of the Student’s placement at West Springfield High School and sought admission to a private day school, River Street School in Connecticut. The parents proceeded pro se . Both Parties made oral closing arguments immediately after presentation of the evidence at hearing on May 23, 2002.
1. Whether the 2001-2002 Individualized Education Plan developed by West Springfield calling for the Student’s placement in a substantially separate classroom can be appropriately implemented at West Springfield High School so as to ensure the maximum feasible educational benefit to the Student in the least restrictive setting? Or
2. Whether the River Street School in Connecticut, a private special education school, is the least restrictive setting which can ensure the Student receives the maximum feasible benefit from her education?
Summary of the Evidence
1. The Student is 14 years old and has just completed her first year at West Springfield High School. She has multiple, severe, life-long disabilities, including: moderate to severe mental retardation, visual impairment, tic disorder, autism and significant behavioral difficulties (tongue biting, head jerking, hand flicking). These characteristics require a specialized education program for the Student. In addition the Student has profoundly severe aeroallergenic asthma/dyspnea and IGE syndrome which require a climate controlled environment and frequent health status monitoring. (S-28, P-4, 6; S-25, S-20; S-10; S-11; S-49; S-48) The Student has strong memorization skills, has a basic sight word vocabulary for reading, can identify coins, and can answer content questions concerning material presented to her at the 8 th grade level. She is able to communicate through single words and signs. She can focus for up to thirty minutes in a structured and repetitive environment with assistance from a one-to-one aide. (Erricolo; S-28, P-4, 6)
2. At all relevant times the Student attended the West Springfield Public Schools.
During the Student’s 8 th grade year (2000-2001) the Student attended the West Springfield Middle School. The middle school is air-conditioned and the Student had unrestricted access to all parts of the school building. (Erricolo, Parent)
3. Kristi Erricolo was the Student’s 8 th grade special education teacher. She testified that the parents requested that the Student’s 8 th grade program de-emphasize life skills training and focus more on traditional academics in an inclusion model. The Student’s 2000-2001 program included individualized academic instruction in a substantially separate classroom, and attendance in regular 8 th grade english, math, art, music and physical education and lunch with a one-to-one aide. Ms. Erricolo stated that most of the substantially separate instruction focused on supporting the Student’s inclusion assignments and on preparing the Student’s alternate portfolio for the 8 th grade MCAS. (S-2) She testified that the Student had a very difficult time attending regular 8 th grade classes because of the lecture/testing format. Nevertheless the Student made good progress in the 8 th grade, demonstrating an ability to sequence 8 th grade level novels, increasing her attention span for academic tasks from twenty to thirty-five minutes, and acquiring and using appropriate social greetings. (Erricolo; S-34, 31) The Student needed to have breathing treatments frequently throughout the year and had very itchy skin. (Erricolo)
4. The Team convened on May 25, 2001, to plan for the Student’s transition to high school. The Team agreed that the academic inclusion model followed during 2000-2001, had not been as successful for the Student as had been hoped. The Team therefore agreed to revert to a more functional, life skills approach for the Student’s 9 th grade program (Erricolo; Parent) There is no evidence in the record that the parents object to the educational model nor to any specific educational services to be provided to the Student under the IEP developed pursuant to the May 25, 2001, Team meeting. (S-28, P-4, 6; S-22; Parent, Bousquet, Erricolo)
5. The Team was aware that in the Spring, 2001, West Springfield High School did not have a climate controlled environment suitable for the Student’s medical needs. The parent requested that the Student be placed at the River Street school in Connecticut because, according to the parent, it has a climate controlled environment, an excellent adaptive physical education program, and an innovative volleyball team. West Springfield agreed to pursue a possible placement for the Student at the River Street School. On June 2, 2001, West Springfield proposed an IEP calling for the Student’s placement in a substantially separate classroom located at the River Street School. (See S-28, P-4,6, See also S-26) The parent accepted the placement decision on July 5, 2001.
6. There is no substantive information in the record concerning whether the River Street School provides the type of educational services and milieu necessary to meet the Student’s educational needs, or whether the River Street School would be able to implement the 2001-2002 IEP drafted by West Springfield. On July 18, 2001, the River Street School notified West Springfield that it had no openings in any program that would be appropriate for the Student and did not anticipate any openings during the course of the 2001-2002 school year. (S-23)
7.) On July 30, 2001, the Director of Special Education, Mr. Snyder, notified the parents that the Student could not be placed at the River Street School and that the appropriate environmental modifications would be made to permit the Student to attend the West Springfield High School. (S-20) The school psychologist, Dr. Bousquet, and the administrative nurse, Ms. Cibrowski, spoke by telephone with the Student’s treating physician, prior healthcare providers and the parents, to gather information concerning recommended environmental adaptations to West Springfield High School, and necessary program accommodations for the Student. (Bousquet)
The Student’s medical providers recommended that the Student’s primary classroom be air conditioned, that her breathing and skin be observed regularly, and that she receive asthma treatments and lotion applications in school as necessary. According to her physician in July 2001 the Student could safely and comfortably tolerate a non-air-conditioned environment for 30-60 minute stretches. (S-30, 19, 25; Bousquet; see also S-4, 5, 9, 60, 61, 72) The parents acknowledged receiving notice of the unavailability of River Street School and of the physical modifications to be made at the high school for the Student. (S-22)
8. The Team reconvened on September 27, 2001. School members reviewed the IEP
and agreed that the educational services listed could be provided, and the goals and objectives could be appropriately addressed, through placement in the Life Skills I class at West Springfield High School. There were no regular education teachers on the Team as the Student’s program did not include any regular education instruction. The Parent objected to the High School placement, stating that the Student’s confinement to one climate controlled classroom was overly restrictive. He requested immediate placement at the River Street School. West Springfield developed an Amendment to the proposed 2001-2002 IEP changing the program location from River Street School to the West Springfield High School. There is no evidence of the Parents’ formal response in the record, though it is clear that the Parents continued to prefer the Student’s placement at the River Street School. The Student attended the Life Skills I class at West Springfield High School the entire 2001-2002 school year. (S-10, 11, 12; Bousquet, Erricolo, Parent)
9. Ms. Erricolo accompanied the Student from the middle to the high school, becoming
the Student’s 9 th grade special education teacher. She testified that the High School Life Skills I program was housed in a large, newly renovated classroom with two air conditioners, a washer/dryer, a refrigerator, a stove and several computers. She stated that there is ample space for teaching and movement, and appropriate equipment to address the goals and objectives in the Student’s IEP. The space is shared with a Life Skills II program in which about forty students are enrolled, though only a few are present at any one time. The Life Skills II students function at a considerably higher level than do the Students in Life Skills I and provide “typical” models and mainstream interaction practice for the Life Skills I students.
There are three students in the Life Skills I class. The Student has an individual aid for all activities. She leaves the classroom for adaptive physical education, lunch, library, speech therapy, food laboratory, swimming, community outings and walks around the building. (Erricolo)
10. Ms. Erricolo testified that the Student did not require or receive any breathing treatments during the course of the 2001-2002 school year and that until May, 2002, the Student’s skin condition had not required any attention in school. Ms. Erricolo further stated that she had not received any communications from the Parents regarding their concerns about the Student’s health during the 2001-2002 school year. Ms. Erricolo testified that the Student made significant behavioral progress over the course of the 2001-2002 which increases her opportunities for generalization of learned skills in the community. She stated that the Student is expected to meet her IEP goals by the end of the year, and that new ones would be developed. (Erricolo; P-8, S-8)
11. In the Spring, 2002, West Springfield requested that the River Street School accept the Student for the 2002-2003 school year. On April 5, 2002, the River Street School notified West Springfield that it had no current or anticipated openings in any appropriate program for the Student for the 2002-2003 school year. (S-1)
Findings and Conclusions
There is no dispute that this Student is entitled to receive a free, appropriate public education under M.G.L. c. 71B and 20 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq. Nor is there any disagreement about the type of educational services that are necessary to ensure that she receives the maximum feasible educational benefit from her program in the least restrictive setting. The only issue here is whether West Springfield has reasonably accommodated the Student’s documented health needs so as to assure her full access to the special education program that is appropriate for her. After careful consideration of all the evidence presented at the hearing, and of the arguments of both Parties, it is my determination that West Springfield reasonably accommodated the Student’s health needs and ensured her access to an individually tailored, and appropriately delivered, special education program in the least restrictive setting. My reasoning follows:
When developing the 2001-2002 IEP for the Student in May, 2001, the Team was aware the Student required a climate controlled environment. (Erricolo; Bousquet; Parent; S-10, 11, 20) At that time no air-conditioned classrooms were available at West Springfield High School. The Team also determined that the focus of the Student’s substantive education program should be changed from integration into mainstream academics to emphasis on daily life skills through intensive, substantially separate instruction. The Team determined that though the educational component, a substantially separate life skills class, was available to the Student at West Springfield High School, the environmental component, an air-conditioned classroom, was not. Therefore the Team recommended that the Student’s program be delivered at a climate controlled site, determined to be the River Street School. When the River Street School declined to accept the Student, West Springfield set out to create the climate-controlled environment required by the Student. (Erricolo; Bousquet; Parent; S-10, 11,20)
The School conducted an appropriate inquiry to determine the requisite environmental features for the Student by reviewing the Student’s prior records, soliciting a health history from the school system’s administrative nurse, consulting with the Student’s classroom teacher, speaking directly with the Student’s treating pulmonologist and with the Student’s parents. Those contacts consistently recommended an air conditioned classroom for the bulk of any educational program for the Student, limiting trips outside the air conditioned environment to no more than 60 minutes, a health monitor to assess the Student’s comfort level, and in-school access to breathing and skin treatments when necessary. (S-25, S-19, S-30, S-20; Bousquet) There is no evidence that the parents disagreed with these recommendations or that any additional or contradictory recommendations were presented to the Team or West Springfield administrative staff. The Parents “authorized” modifications consistent with these recommendations to the classrooms in West Springfield High School. (S-22) The Student actually attended the life skills program in the renovated classroom beginning in September, 2001. The Student’s IEP was amended, after a Team meeting in September, 2001, to reflect the program location at West Springfield High School. (S-10, 11)
The parents did object, however, to the fact that only the classroom actually used by the Student was air-conditioned. They argued that the lack of entire climate controlled facility prevented the Student from engaging in programs and with peers on a basis equivalent to Students without her type of disability. This is a compelling argument to be sure, but one which is not entirely supported by the facts established in this case. Here, the Parties agreed that the Student’s educational needs could best be met in a substantially separate classroom. (S-28, P-4, 6) That classroom, in which the Student spends the bulk of her school time, is appropriately modified to meet the Student’s health needs. The Student has “mainstream” contact both within her classroom, as a natural consequence of sharing the space with another special educational program, and outside the classroom through attending special classes, lunch, recreational and community activities. There is no evidence in the record that the Student has been unable to participate in any scheduled high school activity during the 2001-2002 school year because it was located in a non-modified area. There is no evidence that any portion of the IEP agreed to by the Parties was unimplemented as a result of the physical environment of West Springfield High School. There is no evidence that the Student has suffered any adverse health or educational effects from the location of her program at the West Springfield High School. Instead, the uncontroverted evidence shows an improvement in the Student’s skin condition, a decrease in the frequency of breathing treatments in school, and a significant gain in behavioral skills, during the 2001-2002 school year. (Erricolo) By attending West Springfield High School the Student receives the added benefits of exposure to her neighborhood age peers and familiarity with her school and town environment. This in turn increases her current integration, the opportunities for practice and generalization of daily living skills, and the potential for future participation in her home community. Furthermore, the Student’s placement at the West Springfield High School is consistent with the IDEA mandate that special education be delivered in the least restrictive setting.
Therefore I find that the parent’s contention that the Student requires placement in a private day school which has a fully air-conditioned facility is not supported by a preponderance of evidence in the record.2 The weight of the evidence demonstrates that during the 2001-2002 school year the Student: had access to her entire educational program; had access to the mainstream environment and peers as appropriate to her program; and made progress towards the goals and objectives in her IEP commensurate with her potential.
The 2001-2002 Individualized Education Plan proposed by West Springfield calling for the Student’s placement in a substantially separate classroom at West Springfield High School, was reasonably calculated to provide the maximum feasible educational benefit to the Student in the least restrictive setting.
Lindsay Byrne, Hearing Officer
The IEP at issue in this hearing was developed before Massachusetts adopted the federal “FAPE” standard for delivery of special education services to students with disabilities. M.G.L. c. 71Bs.1, 2,3.
There was no credible evidence of the parents’ secondary argument that the Student had been denied appropriate medical treatment during the 2001-2002 school year at West Springfield High School. (See testimony of Erricolo and Parent)
There is also evidence in the record, aside from the Parent’s assertions, concerning the educational program or physical environment available at the River Street School.