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Saturday, August 13, 2016

First Circuit: Good Academic Performance is Relevant but Not Determinative for Special Education Eligibility

From the Education Law Prof Blog

By LaJuana Davis
August 8, 2016

The First Circuit published an opinion last week dealing with the ambiguity of the "need" provision in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The parents of a seventh-grader, called Jane Doe in the opinion, sued the local school district after it decided that Jane did not require special education in reading fluency because she was doing well in school. Jane had received special education services for years to improve her reading skills.

Jane's parents argued that the "need inquiry" under the IDEA should determine whether a child needs special education to remediate the underlying disability.

The school district argued that the need inquiry should determine whether a child needs special education to benefit from the school curriculum. If the child is doing well academically, the district argued, the child no long qualified for special education services.

The case centers around the text of Section 1401(3)(A)(ii) of the IDEA that provides that a child determined to have one of the qualifying disorders under the first prong must also, “by reason thereof,” “need[ ] special education and related services” to be eligible for special education. 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3)(A)(ii).

The First Circuit found that "Jane's overall academic performance could potentially be relevant in determining whether she has a reading fluency deficit, the district court erred in relying on such evidence without regard to how it reflects her reading fluency skills."

The circuit court vacated and remanded the judgment in favor of the district, holding that the district court weighed Jane's overall academic achievement too heavily when the child's deficiency in reading fluency was sufficient by itself to support eligibility and that the district court afforded excessive deference to the hearing officer's determinations.

In a concurrence, Circuit Judge Lipez offered guidance cautioning courts to not solely look at "an absolute standard of educational performance, the satisfaction of which would automatically disqualify a child from eligibility under the need prong."

The case is Doe, v. Cape Elizabeth Sch. Dist., No. 15-1155, 2016 WL 4151377 (1st Cir. Aug. 5, 2016).

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