Iowa Special Education Court Case Review: Special Education Identification and Compliance with Iowa Code

 

 

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The following is a review of actual court cases and decisions from the State of Iowa, as prepared for my EDL 277 (Issues in Special Education Administration) course at Drake University. The names of the districts and persons involved have been changed to maintain their anonymity, as the purpose of this post is for education and awareness of issues related to special education identification and compliance with Iowa Code. 

Summary of Cases:

School District A 

In the District A’s case, a complaint was filed by the parents alleging that their student was eligible for special education under the provisions of IDEA. In the case, the student’s parents were seeking reimbursement for independent tutoring services provided to their student by Sylvan prior to filing their complaint. Ultimately, it was determine that these costs were ineligible due to falling outside the statute of limitations at the time of the filing.

In the initial findings of the report, it became clear that District A had collected and documented a great deal of data regarding various interventions that were received by the student. These Title 1 interventions included support in handwriting, reading, fluency, and reading comprehension. In addition, the school district had collected a great deal of data regarding the student’s performance on standards-based grade reports, ITBS tests, and various other school-related intervention supports.

In addition, the student was evaluated diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and this diagnoses was substantiated and validated by several medical professionals. Based upon this diagnoses, the district staff met with the student’s parents and together they met to discuss the differences between an IEP and 504 plans. Based on this meeting, it was decided to pursue a 504 plan for the student, as the student was not suspected to have a disability, which is required for an IEP plan. Therefore, as a result of this meeting, the IEP team provided a prior written notice denying the student’s parents their request for an IDEA evaluation.

A few weeks later, the student’s parents requested the IEP team reconsider its decision and a disability suspect meeting was scheduled promptly. The student was then evaluated for special education and it was again determined that the student was not eligible for special education as he did not have a specific learning disability or dyslexia.

The judge ruling in the case provided a substantial legal framework that was used to inform the legal decision that was made in this case. I found this to be both thorough and helpful to understand the rationale for the ultimate decision made. Specifically, the following points really helped provide a solid legal foundation for the decision:

  • If a child has a physical or mental condition, that does not cause a need for special education, the child is not eligible for special education
  • If a child has educational needs, but those needs are not caused by a disability, the child is not eligible for special education.
  • A diagnosis of a physical or mental condition, standing alone, does not make a child eligible for special education
  • In Iowa, special education is defined as “specially designed instruction” as well as support services. To this end, not every instance of different or extra help is special education. Furthermore, response to intervention is general education, not special education or a special education eligibility process.
  • If a child is attaining standards applicable to all children and has access to the general curriculum, modifications to that child’s instruction cannot be considered special education
  • No state or federal law provides that mere participation in supplemental interventions creates a suspicion that a child may be eligible for special education.
  • There is not a maximum period that a child may receive interventions from the public agencies before the agencies must seek consent for an initial evaluation.
  • The fact that a child is not proficient on statewide assessments does not automatically mean that a child needs special education.
  • Not every child with a mental health diagnosis or a behavioral concern will be eligible for special education.

On the basis of the evidence and legal precedent, it was concluded by the judge that the student did not have a learning disability or dyslexia, but that the student’s learning difficulties were due to the student’s anxiety. Additionally, the judge determined that the student met the standards applicable to all children and did not require additional support outside the general educational curriculum. The decision was also informed by the substantial data and documentation the school district provided regarding the student’s performance during interventions, which are not the same as special education. Crucially, the school was also found to have followed protocol regarding the 504 plan that they implemented for the student as it did not circumvent legal protocol by substituting a 504 plan for an IEP plan.

The one area in which the school district was found to be at fault regarding special education eligibility for the student, it was ruled that the district was in violation of IDEA and Iowa state law in relation to their process for concluding that the student was not suspected of a disability. Even though the student was not ultimately suspected of having a disability, the judged maintained that the student’s performance was such that it could, at that time, have been explained by the need for special education.

As a consequence, it was ruled that the staff in the district receive formal training regarding the standard for suspicion of disability in order to ensure that all staff gather sufficient evidence before making conclusions regarding suspicion of disability.

 

School District B

In the District B case, the parent filed a complaint on behalf of their student. In the initial findings of the report, the Administrative Law Judge established the following facts that were known prior to the case:

  • The student has a specific learning disability in the area of reading comprehension. The disability affected the student’s education, and by reason of that disability,the student had a need for specialized instruction
  • The school district and the AEA had reason to suspect disability in need of special education from and after October 15, 2007.
  • The district had additional reason to suspect disability after they were presented evaluations from Dr. John Doe and Dr. Jane Doe that presented diagnoses of both dysnomia and dyslexia and a need for specialized instruction and related services.
  • Provided this evidence, according to the legal findings, the school district and the AEA did not conduct a full and initial evaluation of the student until January 27, 2009.
  • The school district did and the AEA did not provide written notice to the parent. of their refusal to conduct a full and individual evaluation. The judge found this to be prejudicial to the parent and the student because they were not aware that the screening conducted by the AEA was not a full and individual evaluation and because they were not aware of their right to secure such an evaluation within sixty calendar days.
  • On December 21, 2007, when they received the independent evaluation report of the student by Dr. John Doe and Dr. Jane Doe, the district and the AEA resolved to do more testing on the student. Formal testing instruments were administered to the student in January 2008; however, these tests were done without the informed consent of the parent prior to their administration. Furthermore, it was ruled that the purpose of the tests was to refute the evaluations and conclusions of Dr. John Doe and Dr. Jane Doe.
  • From and after November 26, 2007 through July 21, 2009, it was ruled that the district and the AEA did not make a sufficient individualized determination of need and that too much weight was placed on the student’s advancement from grade to grade and the student’s test scores being above the tenth percentile.
  • An educational evaluation report dated July 21, 2009 contained numerous prejudicial statements and conclusions that were not part of the independent evaluation, as well as statements and conclusions that were not approved or considered by the IEP team.
  • The district and the AEA did not document whether or not the student had a specific learning disability.
  • The judge found that the interventions the district used in November 2007, February 2008, and January 2009 were not designed in accord with sound scientific principles. Furthermore, the judge ruled that these general education interventions served to delay a full and individual evaluation of the student’s disability and educational needs, and that these interventions were done without advising the parent of the parent’s right to trigger a full and individual evaluation within sixty calendar days of consenting to such an evaluation.

As a result of these findings, the district was found to be in violation of numerous provisions of state and federal special education law due to their delay in initiating a full and individual evaluation after they had reason to suspect disability and need for specialized instruction.

Additionally, the failure of the respondents to provide written notice of their refusal to conduct a full and individual evaluation was also a violation. Additionally, the failure of the respondent’s to make an individualized determination of need was found to be contrary to the Eighth Circuits rule as set forth in Yankton vs. Schramm, 93 F.3d 1369 (8th Cir. 1996) as well as to the long-standing position of the U.S. Department of Education.

Additional rulings also called into question the district’s failure to present the Educational Evaluation Report dated July 21, 2009 to the parent on or before the eligibility determination meeting held on July 21, 2009. It was ruled that this presented a prejudicial violation of IDEA and that this was inconsistent with the basic principle that a parent is a full partner in making eligibility determinations. Furthermore, the assessments given to the student were found to be a violation of various standards set forth because the assessments were not used for purposes for which the assessments or measures could be considered reliable and valid.

Concluding rulings called into question the district’s violation of their duty to use information provided by the parent, the district’s use of objective and consistently measured tests to monitor the effectiveness of designated interventions, and failure to obtain informed consent from the parent prior to administering the assessments.

On the basis of these findings and rulings, the judge awarded the Complainant reimbursement relief for the costs of securing a tutor, compensatory education for past denials of eligibility and appropriate services, and attorney fees. In addition, the school district was ordered to conduct an IEP team meeting as soon as possible in order to develop an IEP for the student under that legal directive that the school district focuses the IEP on the student’s deficits in reading comprehension. The Administrative Law Judge retained jurisdiction of this matter to insure good faith compliance with this order.

Common Problems

In both cases, it would appear that both districts had a motivation to not suspect disability or eligibility for special education, at least initially. Perhaps this motivation was financial; however, both cases serve as cautionary tales for school leaders. It cannot be ignored that the final rulings in the District A case were much more favorable for the district than in the District B case. I have to believe that this was due, at least in part, to the substantial data collection and documentation procedure that District A appeared to have in place.

However, a key take-away from both cases appears to be to that school leaders should take the disability suspicion process very seriously and that documentation and timely communication are essential for proper legal compliance. Perhaps it would be prudent for the school leader to proceed with the assumption that every disability suspicion process could become a court case at some point and therefore, to follow all the proper channels and legal requirements and to ensure that all staff are properly trained on the disability suspicion process.

Finally, it appears essential that school leaders navigate and lead a special education identification process that values the input of all stakeholders, including parents, staff, and trained professionals. All must remember that they have a moral imperative to do what is best for the child and to work together in the child’s best interest.

 

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