Author: Michael Tucker, Attorney at Law
On October 31, 2017, the U.S. District Court of the Western District of Pennsylvania upheld a decision finding that a local education agency (LEA) did not violate Child Find requirements when the LEA acted promptly by assessing and providing services to the student.
As a preschool student, Student received some special education services even though the preschool determined that Student’s delays did not impede Student’s learning. Upon entering kindergarten with the District, the District evaluated Student to determine if continued services were necessary. The District determined that while not disabled, Student suffered from “behavioral and focus issues.” The District’s IEP team concluded that the kindergarten classroom’s “repetitive and consistent methodology” would address Student’s issues.
However, after Student began attending classes, his classroom teacher became concerned regarding his “extreme response to frustration, expressed fear of the classroom toilet…[his] difficulty staying on task and expressing himself, and [he] would ‘meltdown’ by crying loudly.” Within a few months, District had completed several assessments and convened an IEP meeting. As the assessments were being completed, Student received ongoing counseling from the school psychologist and behavioral specialist. As a result of the IEP meeting, Student received monthly therapy sessions, counseling, weekly behavioral interventions and other services. Student progressed with these interventions and the behavioral interventions were concluded prior to Student’s admission into first grade.
Student’s progress seemingly continued until midway through his first grade year when many of his behavioral issues returned. Parents filed a due process complaint alleging that Student was denied a free appropriate public education (FAPE) when the District failed to meet its Child Find obligations. Parents alleged that the District failed to identify the Student as disabled and waited too long to implement appropriate accommodations.
Under the IDEA, Child Find requires that students in “need of special education and related services are identified, located and evaluated.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(3). Thus, LEAs maintain a continuing obligation…to identify and evaluate all students who are reasonably suspected of having a disability.” P.P. ex rel. Michael P. v. West Chester Area School Dist., (2009) 585 F.3d 727, 738.
However, LEAs are not required to identify a student as disabled at the “earliest possible moment,” especially in very young children. Board of Educ. Of Fayette Cnty., Ky. v. L.M., (2007) 478 F.3d 307, 313 as cited by D.K. v. Abington School Dist., (2012) 696 F.3d 233, 251.
Here, the court found no Child Find violation because the District acted within weeks of Student’s enrollment and Student’s young age.
This case illustrates the difficulty in satisfying an LEA’s Child Find obligations with very young students. The court noted that the less structured environment of early grades combined with a student’s relative immaturity may make it difficult for LEAs to differentiate between traditional students and those with disabilities. However, once a suspected disability and potential need for special education arises, an LEA is required to act promptly in order to satisfy its requirements under Child Find. The District in this case did just that, acting within weeks of Student’s initial enrollment in kindergarten. The court concluded that this prompt action satisfied the District’s Child Find obligations.