A high school senior on track to graduate with a regular diploma was denied a free, appropriate public education (“FAPE”) by his school district because it failed to provide the student with a sufficient individual transition plan that would enable the student to function in the community post-graduation. (Bellflower Unified Sch. Dist., 69 IDELR 196, 117 LRP 4628.) The local school district made the mistake of believing that success in the classroom and on campus would directly translate to post-graduation success in the community.
Student’s primary eligibility category for special education services was autism with a secondary eligibility category of intellectual disability. Parents had repeatedly raised concerns about transition and life skills preparation for student as student progressed through high school. However, the school district failed to assess student’s adaptive living skills in the community. The district focused on student’s academic success and continued progress towards graduating with a regular diploma. The district also relied upon the opinions of teachers and other students that the student could function in the community – but these opinions were based solely on the student’s performance in the classroom.
Parents were told that the district’s adult transition program was for low functioning special education students, well below student’s level. Parents were effectively presented with a choice to leave student on the diploma track and forego adult transition services, or move student to a non-diploma track to obtain adult transition services.
The Office of Administrative Hearings concluded that student was denied a FAPE. The school district mistook success in the classroom for evidence that student could successfully pursue post-secondary goals. However, “If Student could not function in the community, he would be unable to pursue his post-secondary goals. If he could not make purchases in a store, know how to buy a meal, evaluate unsafe situations, use public transportation, communicate with strangers, and otherwise function with a degree of independence, he could not attend community college or maintain a job. Therefore, District deprived Student of educational benefit and denied Student a FAPE.”
This case is a good reminder that at times it can become easy to focus on a student’s performance in the classroom and lose sight of special education’s ultimate goal of helping students develop into adults who can function independently in society and the workforce. This goal should move to the forefront when transition planning begins with a student, parents/guardians, and the local educational agency. Also, the availability of other agencies’ post-secondary services (such as through the regional center or Department of Rehabilitation) does not relieve a local educational agency of its affirmative obligations under the IDEA. The IDEA defines transition services as a coordinated set of activities that are (1) designed within an outcome-oriented process that is focused on improving the academic and functional achievement of the child to facilitate movement from school to post-school activities, including postsecondary education, vocational education, integrated employment, continuing and adult education, adult services, independent living, or community participation; (2) based on the student’s individual needs, taking into consideration the student’s strengths, preferences and interests; and (3) include instruction, related services, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives, and, if appropriate, acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocation evaluation. (20 U.S.C. § 1401(34); Educ. Code § 56345.1(a).)
When a student is succeeding in the classroom and on track to graduate with a regular diploma, it is no less important to assess the student’s ability to transition from the classroom to the community. An LEA should assess a student’s adaptive living skills and prepare an appropriate transition plan that takes into account the student’s interests and unique needs.