A federal appeals court has ruled that a school district's failure to include the parent of a special education student in an individualized education plan meeting that changed the student's school placement was a denial of a free, appropriate public education under federal law.
The father of an 18-year-old Hawaii student with autism wanted to be included in the IEP meeting for his son. But after one rescheduling and some inflexibility on the part of the Hawaii Department of Education (the state's singular public school district), members of the student's IEP team went ahead with the meeting without the father. They also changed the student's placement from a private special education school to a workplace-readiness program at a public high school.
The school system said in court papers that it had tried to work with the parent to come up with an agreeable date and its participants had busy schedules and it faced a deadline before the student's existing IEP lapsed.
The father, identified in court papers as Doug C., was sick on the day in November 2010 of a much-rescheduled IEP meeting. He declined district officials' suggestions that he participate by phone or the Internet, saying he wanted to be there in person.
After the IEP team went ahead without him, and changed the son's school placement, the father rejected the new IEP and sought a due-process review. He also kept his son in the private school, the Horizons Academy of Maui, and sought tuition reimbursement.
Both a hearing officer and a federal district court ruled for the school system, saying that not including the father in the IEP meeting did not deny his son a free, appropriate education under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
In its June 13 decision in George C. v. Hawaii Department of Education, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, in San Francisco, unanimously reversed those lower rulings.
"Echoing the Supreme Court, we have held that parental participation safeguards are among the most important procedural safeguards in the IDEA and that procedural violations that interfere with parental participation in the IEP formulation process undermine the very essence of the IDEA," the 9th Circuit court said.
"The fact that it may have been frustrating to schedule meetings with or difficult to work with Doug C. (as the department repeatedly suggests) does not excuse the department's failure to include him in [the son's] IEP meeting when he expressed a willingness to participate," the court added. "We have consistently held that an agency cannot eschew its affirmative duties under the IDEA by blaming the parents."
The appeals court stopped short of granting tuition reimbursement to George C.'s over his decision to keep his son at Horizons Academy. (It's not clear whether only one year of tuition is at issue, or the exact amount, but according to the academy's website, base annual tuition is $28,000.) The appeals court left it up to the district court to decide whether Hawaii would have to reimburse the tuition under applicable precedents.