District Ordered to Reimburse for Private Placement

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District Ordered to Reimburse for Private Placement

District Ordered to Reimburse for Appropriate Religious-Affiliated Private Placement for Failing to Provide Clear Written Offer of Placement

OAH case no. 2019010819,
William S. Hart Union School District

Issues

2 Issues were addressed by Administrative Law Judge Cole Dalton.

  1. Whether Hart District made a clear written offer of FAPE in its Individualized Education Plans; and
  2. Whether OAH can order reimbursement of Student’s costs for attendance at a private religious school for constitutional reasons.

Ruling

Judge Dalton found that there was no clear offer of placement in place at the start of the 2018-2019 school year; and that a District can be ordered to reimburse parents, even if student placed in a religious school.

The judge ordered the District to reimburse parents for the 2018-2019 school year.

Summary

Clear Written Offer

The 2018-2019 school year had already begun at the time when the District held the IEP for that year.  The IEP documents offered a myriad of placement options leading up to and during the August IEP.  Hart offered two placement options in the October IEP. The October IEP document was internally inconsistent in that it offered a single placement in one location and two placements in another.  Despite knowing that Parents rejected every placement option offered, Hart did not formally make an offer of a single, specific program before the start of the 2018-2019 school year on August 16, 2018. Hart held another IEP team meeting on August 22, 2018, again not offering a single, specific program. Hart continued to offer nonpublic school placement, identifying Bridgeport and Casa Pacifica as two possible options, which Parents previously declined. Hart offered no assurance at the August 22, 2018 meeting that either program would accept Student. Student began attending Trinity the following day.

Judge Dalton cited .  Union Sch. Dist. v. Smith (9th Cir. 1994) 15 F.3d 1519, 1526 (Union); and J.W. v. Fresno (9th Cir. 2010) 626 F.3d 431, 459-460 stating, “A district has an obligation to make a formal written offer in the IEP that clearly identifies the proposed program and that parents can understand. The requirement of a coherent, formal, written offer creates a clear record that helps eliminate factual disputes about when placements were offered, what placements were offered, and what additional assistance was offered to supplement a placement. It also assists parents in presenting complaints with respect to any matter relating to the educational placement of the child.”

The court also relied heavily on Glendale Unified Sch. Dist. v. Almasi (C.D.Cal. 2000) 122 F.Supp.2d 1093, 1108.  In Glendale, the court considered a school district’s contention that an offer of four potential placements was procedurally proper, so long as it presented the choices in a coherent written offer. (Glendale, supra, at p. 1107.) The Glendale court found that Union required a district formally offer of a single, specific program, reasoning that, “[o]ffering a variety of placements puts an undue burden on a parent to eliminate potentially inappropriate placements, and makes it more difficult for a parent to decide whether to accept or challenge the school district’s offer.” (Ibid.)

Reimbursement for Religious School

Hart argued the Office of Administrative Hearings cannot order reimbursement of Student’s costs for attendance at a private religious school for constitutional reasons. Hart cited no legal authority which limits an Administrative Law Judge’s broad latitude to fashion equitable remedies in this manner. Such authority does not exist. The Ninth Circuit upholds the Office of Administrative Hearing’s authority to order reimbursement for private religious school tuition where the school district denies student a FAPE and the placement is appropriate. (S.L. ex rel. Loof v. Upland Unified Sch. Dist. (9th Cir. 2014) 747 F.3d 1155, 1160.)

Judge Dalton also cited the Supreme Court in Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills Sch. Dist. (1993) 509 S.Ct. 1 [113 S.Ct. 2462]  In Zobrest, parents of a deaf child brought suit after the school district refused to provide a sign-language interpreter for the child’s attendance at a Catholic high school. The school district argued the interpreter would act as a conduit for religious training and the Constitution barred it from providing government funds for the child’s religious development.

The Zobrest Court reasoned that if the Establishment Clause barred religious groups from receiving any general government benefits, absurd results would follow, including that a “church could not be protected by the police and fire departments, or have its public sidewalk kept in repair. (Citations omitted).” (Id., at p. 8 [113 S.Ct. 2462, 2468].) Application of the Establishment Clause under California’s constitution does not yield a different result. (U.S. Const. art. VI, § sec. 2.)

In Zobrest, as here, a contrary rule would lead to absurd results. A school district could deny any student a FAPE and not be tasked with reimbursement for an appropriate placement, so long as that placement was a private religious school.  Nothing in the IDEA, state, or federal law, requires such a result. The IDEA does not limit such reimbursement to nonpublic or non-religious private schools.

Reimbursement for an appropriate placement after a denial of FAPE is part of the general government program of benefits available to students under the IDEA. Parents, here, had no financial incentive to choose Trinity over a different school.

Read the full decision.

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