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The parents of a disabled student in Hawaii are entitled to reimbursement from the state for his private school expenses, the Ninth Circuit ruled on Friday. Since the Hawaii Department of Education failed to propose an adequate public school placement for the student, it was responsible for paying for his private education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Further, the parents were entitled to two years to seek reimbursement, since the private placement had stemmed from joint, if litigious, decision between the family and the school system and was not taken on unilaterally.
Finding a Proper Placement
Sam K., who suffers from a handful learning disabilities, was placed in a private school suited to his educational needs. Following litigation, the school agreed to pay for that placement from 2007-2010 while working on an individualized education plan (IEP) with his parents. IEPs govern the learning needs and objections of students diagnosed with learning disabilities.
When the 2010-2011 school year rolled around, no suitable placement for Sam was agreed upon. The DOE attempted to place him in a public program, but an administrative appeal of that decision found the public placement to be "ill advised, inappropriate, and potentially disastrous." Sam stayed in his private school, which was determined to be the best placement.
The IDEA's Reimbursement Time Limits
The IDEA guarantees children with disabilities a free, appropriate public education designed to meet their needs. When no appropriate public program is available, parents can place their children in a private program and request reimbursement from the school district.
The IDEA sets two different limitations periods for seeking private tuition reimbursement. When parents place a child in private school on their own, a so-called unilateral placement, they have 180 days to request reimbursement. When the placement is made in conjunction with the DOE, a bilateral placement, families have a up to two years to initiate the reimbursement process.
Sam's Placement Was Bilateral
Whether Sam's placement was bilateral or unilateral was at the heart of the appeal. The Ninth Circuit found it to be a bilateral placement, meaning that the parents could obtain reimbursement because they acted within the two year time limit for bilateral placement reimbursements. Since the DOE had already agreed to pay for Sam's private program and since it had failed to offer a sufficient alternative, it could not claim that the parent's acted unilaterally in keeping Sam at his school.
The court declined to analogize Sam's case to instances where "stay put" placements -- parents keeping their child in private programs while contesting public placement -- were treated as unilateral actions. Here, the DOE's previous settlement with Sam didn't indicate that he could not continue at his private school after the end of the settlement period. The fact that the school district failed to act when parents continued Sam's enrollment also indicates tacit consent to the private placement, making it bilateral.
That means that Sam's family will be reimbursed for his 2010-2011 tuition, though the court noted that future changes to his placement are not foreclosed -- they simply must be done properly.