LRE Compliance Attorney Laubin

Set clear limits, goals for diagnostic placement to earn parents' trust

A teenager suspected of having an emotional disability grows increasingly aggressive, threatening the safety of herself and others. Her district requests a hearing to move her temporarily to a more restrictive setting to determine the safest environment in which she can learn productively.

Such was the case in Timberlane Regional Sch. Dist., 45 IDELR 139 (SEA NH 2006), in which an impartial hearing officer ordered a diagnostic placement for a student so she could undergo a thorough evaluation and find a setting that would allow her to better access her education.

According to IDEA 2004, districts can place a student in a temporary setting for up to 45 days to determine a more appropriate placement. But diagnostic placements are frequently a source of contention between parents and districts because parents often misperceive them as excuses to dump difficult students into more restrictive settings.

You should consider how your district can better work with parents to earn their trust, avoid due process, and ensure students receive a virtually uninterrupted education.

"Parents are very focused on wanting their children to learn in the least restrictive environment and will buck at the recommendation to pull their children out to a specialized setting," said Michelle C. Laubin, an attorney who represents school districts with Berchem Moses PC, in Milford, Conn. "Districts have to emphasize with parents that they're not just putting their kid in a holding cell for 45 days but that they're going to work together to figure out what supports and services he needs so he can return to the least restrictive environment."

You might try the following:

Promote collaboration. Convene an IEP meeting at the first sign of recurring challenges to prevent a diagnostic placement from seeming like solely a disciplinary action, Laubin said. Assure parents that you have a shared mission to find a way for their kid to succeed in learning. Ease worries by defining a specific time line for the evaluation and placement process.

You can say, "Let's step back from this setting and do a functional behavioral assessment," Laubin said. "Let's use these 45 days to develop a behavioral intervention plan and see what's effective so we can reintroduce your child to his old setting with new supports and give him a fresh start and chance for success."

Emphasize supports and services. For parents to see that your intentions are in the best interest of their child, you have to propose productive diagnostic placements that include professional evaluations and intervention trials, Laubin said.

"If you put a kid on homebound services with a tutor without any other services, the kid's going to come back to school with the same exact problem and you're not going to be in any better of a position to work with that child than before the 45 days," she said.

Get creative. Even after a court orders an interim placement, some parents refuse to send their child to that placement, Laubin said. Rather than let the child go without intervention, you should compromise with parents on a suitable temporary solution.

"By the time the court system can jump in and say to a parent, 'You need to send your child to this placement,' the 45 days are up and the child has been sitting at home without any education services," she said. "Maybe you can bring in a behavioral consultant to wherever the parent wants the kid to be."

Institute diagnostic placement early. Rather than wait until a behavioral issue triggers a removal to a diagnostic placement, Laubin said, let initial placements for students new to special education be diagnostic to build rapport with parents.

"It can help a parent who may be on the fence about whether he wants his child to be labeled as a special education student to see what his child's services are going to look like with no commitment," Laubin said. "Once a parent sees how his child is responding to the program, he may be more willing to give consent to a permanent placement in special education."

And, she said, you will have built a basis of trust to work from in case you have to move a student to an interim alternative educational setting in the future because of a change in his conduct.

Contact Laubin at mlaubin@bmdlaw.com.

Reprinted with permission from LRE Compliance Advisor. Copyright 2006 by LRP Publications, PO Box 24668, West Palm Beach, FL 33416-4668. All rights reserved. For more information about LRE Compliance Advisor and other education products published by LRP Publications please call 1-800-341-7874 or visit LRP Publications' online catalog at www.shoplrp.com .