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Parents Can't Recoup Educational Expenses from School District

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By Gabriella Khorasanee, JD on July 26, 2013 3:55 PM

The Individual with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") requires that states receiving federal educational funding provide students with disabilities a "free appropriate public education" ("FAPE"). Pursuant to IDEA, O.M.'s parents sought reimbursement, from the Pottsville Area School District, for residential educational expenses incurred when O.M. attended two separate boarding schools.

Under IDEA, once a child is identified as eligible for FAPE by a school district, the district must provide an Individualize Education Plan ("IEP"), specific to the child's needs and disability. To succeed in their claim, O.M.'s parents must show that (1) the school district failed to provide a FAPE; and (2) the alternative placement was appropriate.

O.M. was emotionally troubled and made several suicide attempts, in addition to threatening suicide and making suicidal gestures, over the course of four years. His parents placed him in two residential treatment facilities: Wediko and Phelps. Both facilities provided O.M. with an education, in addition to counseling and therapy.

Prior to admission to Wediko, the school district did not evaluate O.M., and did not provide an IEP. Prior to O.M.'s admission to Phelps, the Pottsville District did an evaluation and provided an IEP, which O.M.'s parents rejected.

In 2009, O.M.'s parents filed a due process complaint with the Office of Dispute Resolution, which found that O.M.'s parents were not entitled to relief. The District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania agreed, and yesterday, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

The central issue was whether O.M.'s placement in a residential facility was "appropriate." Whether the placement in a residential program is appropriate is based upon whether the "placement is 'necessary to provide special education and related services.'" For example, where a child has cerebral palsy and severe mental disabilities, a residential program would be necessary to facilitate education, and training in self-help.

In this case, the court found that O.M.'s placement in a residential program was not to further education. Instead, the placement was mainly for mental and emotional needs. The court stated: 'School districts are not, however, financially responsible for the placement of students who need twenty-four-hour supervision for medical, social, or emotional reasons, and receive only an incidental educational benefit from that placement."

The court also noted that school districts need only provide IEP's that enable students to "receive meaningful educational benefits" and are not required to "maximize the potentia"" of every disabled student.

Today, the Third Circuit offered more clarity to parents, school districts, and their counsel about what is "appropriate" under IDEA. Residential programs for disabled students, even those just suffering from emotional disturbances, may be entitled to reimbursement. However, the students must show that the emotional problems "interfere[d] fundamentally with [the]... ability to learn."

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