A Case Emphasizing the Importance of Addressing Mental Health Services: Independent School District v. EMDH, 8th Cir. 2020

The case of Independent School District v. E.M.D.H. (2020) involved a gifted secondary student, E.M.D.H. (hereinafter E.M.), who had school phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, an obsessive-compulsive disorder, severe depression, attention deficit hyperactivity (ADHD) disorder, and a panic disorder. In this case, the parents filed for a due process hearing under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) alleging that, among other issues, that a public school district in Minnesota had failed to provide E.H. with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) as required by the IDEA. The case is noteworthy because it involves a student with significant mental health problems who was not identified as needing special education services.

E.H. had significant mental health problems that were apparent when she was a very young child. In 2nd grade, E.H.’s parents had her attend therapy sessions. Despite these issues, she did well in school in her elementary school years and had no major academic difficulties. Middle school, however, was very difficult for E.M. By fall of her 8th grade year, she started missing from school frequently. Her parents placed her in a psychiatric day treatment facility, and the school district dis-enrolled her. Because school personnel recognized that E.H.’s difficulties were due to her mental health issues, she was given incompletes in all of her classes.

E.H. returned to the public school district for a short while in 8th grade. Before she entered the ninth grade in the fall of 2015, E.H.’s parents told her ninth-grade guidance counselor that she had not been present for the latter part of eighth grade due to anxiety and school phobia. Despite these past difficulties, E.M. was enrolled in the ninth grade. Her attendance was inconsistent and then she quit going to school altogether. She was again admitted to a psychiatric facility for treatment. When she returned to school, the District discussed evaluating E.M. as a candidate for special education. School district officials made it clear that the decision to evaluate was up to the parents ,but that if she were to be put in special education, she could not attend honors classes. The parents decided not to seek a special education evaluation ,and the district personnel chose not to seek permission to conduct an evaluation.

E.M. spent most of the summer of 2016 in the psychiatric day facility receiving treatment for her anxiety disorder, depression, and ADHD. She was able to manage her symptoms with assistance well enough to be reintroduced to both her daily routines and academic subjects. When E.H. entered her tenth-grade year in the public school district, school personnel developed a plan that allowed her extra time on assignments, adjustments in workload, breaks from class to visit the counseling office, and the use of a fidget spinner. However, even with these accommodations, EH. was unable to maintain consistent attendance. After the first six weeks, she attended almost no classes, resulting in another dis-enrollment by the District. In January 2017, E.H.’s parents met with school personnel to examine the possibility of providing special education services. Her parents were told that if E.H. was placed in special education, she would be removed from her honors classes, effectively placing her in course work that would not challenge or stimulate her intellectually. At the end of the first semester, school personnel had not sought permission to conduct a special education evaluation. E.H. attended only one day during the second semester, and school officials dis-enrolled her again in February.

In April 2017, 3 days after E.H. had been readmitted to a psychiatric facility, the parents requested that the school evaluate her eligibility for special education. While she was at the facility, a psychiatrist performed a comprehensive psychological evaluation of E.H. She was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, generalized anxiety disorder with panic and obsessive-compulsive-disorder features, and symptoms of borderline-personality disorder. The psychiatrist concluded that E.H.’s mental health problems had resulted in an inability to attend school, increasing social isolation, and her continued need for intensive therapeutic treatment.

E.H’s problems continued into her junior year. She attended three partial days of the 11th grade in a school district program designed for students with emotional and behavioral disorders. However, because of her mental health problems, she ceased attending school in mid-September. At this point, E.H had earned far less than half of the 46 credits necessary to graduate. Most of her credits were from instruction she received at treatment facilities, with only two credits coming from regular district coursework.

Eight months after requesting a school district evaluation, school officials provided E.H.’s parents with the results of the special education evaluation. The School district officials concluded that she did not qualify for special education services. Her parents sought an evaluation from a team of doctors and other specialists from outside the school district. The evaluation confirmed E.H.’s diagnoses and included a recommendation that she receive special education services that would allow her to complete rigorous coursework while managing the mental health problems. The school district rejected this evaluation and stood by their evaluation that she was not qualified for special education. E.H.’s parents filed for a due process hearing under the IDEA, alleging that the school district violated the IDEA and state law when it failed to identify E.H. as eligible for special education services and provide her with special education services.

The administrative law judge (ALJ) who conducted the hearing concluded the district violated the IDEA when it failed to: (a) identify the student as a child with a disability, (b) conduct an appropriate and timely special-education evaluation, (c) find the student qualified for special education, and (d) provide E.H. with a FAPE. The ALJ ordered the school district to develop an IEP that provided E.H. with a FAPE. Additionally, the ALJ instructed the district to hold quarterly meetings to monitor E.H.’s progress, reimburse the parents over $25,000 for past diagnostic and educational expenses, pay for compensatory services in the form of private tutoring, and reimburse the cost of E.H.’s private tutor’s and psychiatrist’s attendance at IEP meetings. The school appealed to the district court for the state of Minnesota. The district court upheld the ALJ’s decision except for the compensatory services of a private tutor. Both parties filed an appeal with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit, which has controlling authority in Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Noth Dakota, and South Dakota.

The 8th circuit court upheld the ALJ’s and the district court’s rulings that the school district had violated the child find, evaluation and FAPE requirements of the IDEA.  The circuit court also upheld the remedies required by the ALJ and the district court and reinstated the ALJ’s remedy of compensatory services of a private tutor until the credit deficiency was made up.

The lessons from this case are clear.  First, when school district personnel think that a student may have a disability, they have an obligation to seek permission to conduct an evaluation.  They should never wait for a student’s parents to ask for an evaluation.  Second, a student may be gifted, but if mental health problems seriously affect the student’s ability to benefit from their education, the student should be referred for special education services.

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