In previous blog posts, we have written about the two Supreme Court decisions that created a standard for determining if a school district had provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to a student with a disability who had been determined eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). These two decisions, Board of Education v. Rowley (1982) and Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017), divided school district personnel’s obligations in two types of requirements: Procedural and substantive. The first type of obligation, procedural, involve the IDEA’s requirements such as child find, prior written notice, assessments, IEP teams, IEP components, IEP reviews, and notification of procedural safeguards. School district personnel must adhere to these procedural requirements when developing and implementing students’ special education programs. The second type of obligations are substantive, which involve the content of students’ IEPs (e.g., present levels statements, goal, services, progress monitoring) and whether a student’s IEPs was likely to or actually enabled the student to make progress appropriate in light of his or her circumstances.
In the following case, Amanda J. v. Clark County School District (2001) heard by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, we see how committing the very serious procedural violation of failing to involve a students’ parents in the development and implementation of their child’s IEP may lead to a denial of FAPE, in violation of the IDEA.
Amanda J. was born in 1991. Amanda and her family lived in Clark County Nevada. When Amanda was two years old, she was assessed by a psychologist who recommended placing her in the Clark County early childhood program to determine her eligibility for special education services and to provide speech services. She was later evaluated by a psychologist and a speech and language clinician for the school district. They found that Amanda was developmentally delayed and suggested that she be (a) assessed by a child psychologist, (b) put on a reward consequence program to improve her behavior, (c) provided speech and language services, and (d) further evaluated for special education services. These recommendations were put in a report shared with school district personnel but not shared with Amanda’s parents. In a later assessment, a psychologist found Amanda to be severely autistic and recommended further assessment and speech and language therapy. Amanda’s mother later reported that the psychologist did not share his findings with her.
In 1995, an eligibility team found that Amanda was eligible for special education services. Before an IEP meeting was held, Amanda’s mother asked to be given a copy of her daughter’s assessment report. The school district sent a two-page summary of the assessment report to Amanda’s mother after the initial IEP meeting was held. In the IEP meeting, goals were written for toilet training, matching colors and shapes, establishing eye contact, making choices, and following classroom procedures and rules. Amanda was placed in an early childhood special education program.
At the end of October 1995, Amanda and her family moved to California. Shortly after moving Amanda’s mother signed consent to have Amanda’s records transferred to her new school. A few months after beginning school, Amanda was assessed by a psychologist, who diagnosed her as having autism. When attending an IEP meeting in the new school district, Amanda’s parents were given the full assessment reports that had been conducted and the early assessment reports from the Clark County School District. Amanda’s parents discovered that the district had been aware that Amanda may have had autism, although they were not informed of the possibility. This was not included in the assessment summary nor in Amanda’s IEP.
In October 1997, Amanda’s parents requested a due process hearing in the Clark County School District, to determine whether Amanda had been correctly identified and whether she had received a FAPE. The hearing officer (HO) ruled that Amanda had been misidentified and therefore had been denied a FAPE. The school district appealed to the state. A state review officer (SRO) overturned the HO. The parents appealed to the U.S. District Court for the District of Nevada. The district court affirmed the SRO’s ruling, finding that Amanda had neither been misdiagnosed nor had she been denied a FAPE. Amanda’s parents appealed the ruling to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The ninth circuit court noted that “Procedural compliance is essential to ensuring that every eligible child receives a FAPE, and those procedures which provide for meaningful parent participation are particularly important” (Amanda J. 2001, p. 892). The court recognized that not all procedural violations, especially “technical deviations” will render an IEP invalid, but that any procedural violation that infringes on a student’s educational opportunity will result in a denial of FAPE. The court also held that “Procedural violations that interfere with parental participation in the IEP formulation process undermine the very essence of the IDEA. An IEP which addresses the unique needs of the child cannot be developed if those people who are most familiar with the child’s needs are not involved or fully informed” (Amanda J. 2001, p. 892). The court held that the school district by not providing Amanda’s parents the full assessment information had prevented the parents’ full and effective participation in the IEP process. The circuit court reversed the decision of the district court.
As the Amanda J. decision shows, when school district personnel commit procedural violations that result in parents not be being fully involved in the IEP process, it is likely that a hearing officer will find a violation of the FAPE requirements of the IDEA. A number of special education-related cases, including rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court, have confirmed the critical obligation of school personnel to ensure that parents are partners in the special education process, from evaluation to IEP development and review. It is critically important that school-based personnel adhere to all the procedural obligations of the IDEA, but above all ensure that parents are involved in the development of their child’s IEP.