Summary: The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ruled that an IEP team’s failure to discuss residential placements denied a student a free, appropriate public education (“FAPE”) even though the Department of Children and Family Services (“DCFS”) had already placed the student in a locked residential facility to address the student’s mental health needs pursuant to a court order. M.S. v. Los Angeles Unified School District (U.S. Dist. Court Sept. 12, 2016) Case No. 2:15-cv-05819-CARS-MRW.
Facts: Student is a seventeen-year-old girl who has been a ward of the Court and the Department of Children and Family Services (“DCFS”) since the age of eleven, making DCFS responsible for providing Student suitable housing and meeting her mental health needs. Student qualifies for special education services under the category of “emotional disturbance.”
Student experienced multiple mental health hospitalizations and detainment in juvenile hall. Upon her release from juvenile hall, the Court ordered DCFS to provide Student with “permanent placement services,” and DCFS placed Student in a series of residential facilities. During this time, several IEP meetings were convened. None of Student’s IEPs called for a residential treatment component to DCFS’s placements, and the Student’s district of residence did not consider whether a residential placement was necessary or what residential placement would provide Student with a FAPE.
The Office of Administrative Hearings (“OAH”) concluded that only DCFS was legally responsible to provide an appropriate placement for Student’s mental health needs, and the evidence was undisputed that Student’s post-juvenile hall placement was appropriate.
On appeal, Student argued that the District denied her a FAPE by (1) failing to discuss a residential placement at an IEP meeting, (2) “predetermining” the question of a residential placement at an IEP meeting, and (3) failing to offer a residential placement.
Discussion: In this case, the U.S. District Court concluded that the District and OAH incorrectly conflated two types of “placement” – DCFS’s obligation to provide necessary and appropriate “permanent placement services” to address Student’s mental health needs pursuant to a court order, and the District’s independent obligation to consider Student’s educational “placement” in light of her educational needs, which could include placement in a residential facility.
Under the IDEA, a local educational agency (“LEA”) like the District “must ensure that a continuum of alternative placements is available to meet the needs of children with disabilities for special education and related services” which may include placement in a residential program. 34 CFR § 300.115(a). Generally, in California, to determine whether a residential placement under the IDEA is necessary to provide a student a FAPE, the analysis focuses on whether the residential placement is necessary for educational purposes, or merely a response to medical, social, or emotional problems separate from the learning process. Ashland Sch. Dist. v. Parents of Student E.H. (9th Cir. 2009) 587 F.3d 1175, 1184.
Here, the District improperly failed to consider whether a residential placement should be part of Student’s IEP even though DCFS had already placed Student at a locked residential facility. The District also “predetermined” Student’s placement before the IEP was developed, or at least steered the IEP to DCFS’s predetermined residential placement, by accepting DCFS’s placement of Student in a particular residential facility without assessing whether a residential placement, or the current residential placement, was necessary for educational purposes. True, Student’s placement at the locked residential facility did comply with a Court order and the California laws governing the provision of services to emotionally disturbed children and wards of the court, but those laws only supplement the Federal IDEA when it comes to special education. I.R. ex rel. E.N. v. Los Angeles Unified Sch. Dist. (9th Cir. 2015) 805 F.3d 1164, 1168. The District was still obligated to consider what placement was necessary to provide Student with a FAPE, and it was not relieved of this obligation merely because DCFS had already placed Student at a locked residential facility.
Practice Tips: A Juvenile Court may order that a child be placed in a residential treatment facility by an agency other than a school district (such as Probation or DCFS). While it is understandable for a LEA to think it would be unnecessary and duplicative for an IEP team to also consider offering a residential placement, this case makes clear that not doing so could expose the school district to claims of a denial of FAPE. IEP teams should still consider whether a student requires residential placement for educational reasons even when the Juvenile Court has ordered residential placement to be funded by another public agency. Notably, the Court in this case expressly took no position regarding which public entity may ultimately be responsible for payment of residential treatment services in the event that multiples entities, like DCFS and a local school district, independently decide a particular residential placement is appropriate for a given child under the agencies’ respective statutory frameworks and obligations.