District Court Gives Bad Marks for Overreliance on Academics in Determining Eligibility for Special Education
Author: Michael Tucker, Attorney at Law
On February 12, 2022, a California district court ruled that a school district (District) denied a student a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) because the District focused too much on the student’s (Student) academic achievement and discounted the student’s negative social interactions with peers and aggressive responses to bullying. (Rocklin Unified Sch. Dist. v. J.H., (2022) 122 LRP 5961.)
When Student was in third grade, he was academically successful and appeared to display appropriate social and behavioral skills. When Student was in fourth grade, he appeared to have difficulty focusing and staying organized. His teacher noticed he had difficulty writing and appeared argumentative and anxious. Student became the victim of bullying and was ultimately suspended after a physical altercation. However, Student continued to meet academic standards appropriate for his grade level.
In response, the District initially instituted a 504 Support Plan and other school-wide initiatives to address behavior. In March 2018, Parent complained to the District about the bullying and requested a special education assessment. In April 2018, Student was assessed by the school psychologist, but the District did not identify Student as eligible for special education at the May 2018 IEP. While the psychologist’s report determined that Student’s ADHD and anxiety impacted his alertness while in class, the IEP team did not find that Student’s educational performance was adversely impacted requiring special education. As a result, the school psychologist recommended accommodations to address these and other challenges.
Despite this assessment, Student was not identified as eligible for special education based on anxiety and ADHD under the category of “other health impairment” until 2019. An IEP team offered Student placement in the District’s general education program with specialized academic instruction and speech services. Student’s parents filed a request for due process alleging that the District failed in its “child find” responsibilities in not identifying Student as eligible for special education prior to 2019. Conversely, the District maintained that even if Student’ diagnoses of ADHD and anxiety qualified as disabilities under the IDEA, he did not qualify for special education because he was “appropriately served” through general education interventions..
All Local Educational Agencies (LEA) have a duty to identify students who may require special education services. 20 U.S.C. § 1412. An LEA can be put on notice of a student who may require special education services if a parent express a concern or from a professional assessment. Timothy O. v. Paso Robles Unified Sch. Dist., (2016) 822 F.3d 1105.
The Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued a finding that the District violated its child find obligation in that the Student should have been qualified for special education in 2018. The ALJ also found that the district denied Student FAPE in 2018 by failing to find him eligible for special education.
The District argued that Student’s diagnoses did not qualify him for special education services since Student was receiving appropriate services through general education intervention. However, the court deferred to the ALJ’s finding that the District simply focused too much on Student’s good academic standing in making its determination regarding the appropriateness of special education services. The court noted that “academic success alone does not determine whether special education services are necessary.” As cited in L.J. by & through Hudson v. Pittsburgh Unified Sch. Dist., (2017) 850 F.3d 996. Hearing officers and courts may interpret “educational performance” to go beyond grades.
Here, the District’s overreliance on academic data prevented the District from providing appropriate services to Student. Had the District recognized Student’s anxiety and its impact on his social and behavioral interactions, appropriate services may have been provided in time for the District to avoid this adverse ruling. While academics are certainly part of an IEP team’s evaluation, it remains only a piece to a student’s overall evaluation puzzle. Without considering all relevant data and information, an LEA may find itself failing to properly serve a student who is otherwise eligible for special education services.