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Much Ado About Nothing

The Supreme Court ruling in the Forest Grove School District v. T.A. case was released this week.  Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see this ruling as changing much of anything in the world of special education disputes, at least as far as Connecticut is concerned.  Essentially, the Supreme Court ruled that 20 U.S.C. 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii) continues to allow courts to award reimbursement of tuition in unilateral placement cases if they determine that the school district failed to provide FAPE, even if the student has not previously received special education services from the school district.  The Supreme Court seemed offended that the school district could evaluate a child, find the child not eligible for services, fail to provide services, and then benefit from that failure by having the courts deny reimbursement for the parent’s unilateral private school placement.  Is this really a surprise to anyone?

Yes, those of us who represent school districts had hoped that the Supreme Court might rule in favor of the district, recognizing the public policy concerns that we have about parents who fail to notify the district or request evaluations prior to making a private placement, but those facts were just not presented in this case.  The parents in the Forest Grove case did request evaluations, the school district evaluated the student and found him not eligible and did not provide an IEP.  The arguments from the school district that the public policies of IDEA require a collaborative relationship between school and parents, and development of an appropriate IEP requires constant adjustment to changing circumstances are real, but they are undercut when the district is determined to have erred in failing to find the student eligible for services in the first place.

So how does life change after Forest Grove? In Connecticut, I would argue, not at all.  I am not aware of a single Connecticut hearing officer who has ever denied reimbursement for a unilateral private placement by a parent in a case where the district either failed to evaluate when it should have, or evaluated and erroneously found the child not eligible.  The Supreme Court decision seems consistent with that line of decisions.  The bigger question, it seems to me, is whether the courts and hearing officers will treat differently (as I believe they should) the case where the parents do not refer the child for special education evaluation until AFTER the child is placed and, according to IDEA, the “child find” responsibilities belong to the district where the school is located, rather than the district of residence.