Unilateral placement cases are highly fact-specific and each case is unique. It is advisable that a parent seeking to place their child unilaterally and obtain reimbursement for the costs of that placement obtain assistance from a special education attorney or highly experienced advocate from the initial stages of this process. An attorney or advocate can assist the parent with following all of the necessary steps in the process along the way.
The previous post in this series talks about when and how a parent gives notice to the school district of their decision to place their child unilaterally at a private school. Prior to reaching the point of providing notice, parents must go through the process of determining that a private placement is necessary for their child. The case law recognizes that such a determination is made at the parents' financial risk; that is, there is no guarantee that the parent would ultimately be reimbursed. Therefore, the determination to take such a step should only be made when it is necessary, and must be done cautiously. This second part of the "private placement" blog series discusses factors and situations that may give rise to such a determination.
Parents have attempted to work with the District to find another suitable alternative
Generally, parents should not rush into a unilateral, private placement without first trying to work within the District's system to locate an appropriate alternative. This doesn't mean that every child has to necessarily "try" the District's proposed classroom before the private placement occurs. But it does mean that parents should work cooperatively with the District, attend and participate in IEP meetings, voice their concerns about placements proposed by the District, go and observe District programs when possible, and provide the District with input from private experts or independent evaluators. If the District has not been given the "opportunity" to provide the student with an appropriate program, ultimately it is likely that a judge will find that reimbursement is not appropriate.
Private placement should be considered, therefore, in situations where the parent has actively and cooperatively participated in IEPs and placement discussions and has made efforts to work with the District to secure an approrpiate publicly funded placement. Many parents only turn to a unilateral placement after visiting / observing all of the recommended placements by the District, having multiple meetings with the District about placement, voicing their concerns, etc, and then determining that there is no appropriate option within the District's alternatives and private placement is therefore necessary. To read an example of such a case, see Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York, 39 IDELR 56 (SEA NY 2002).
The District delayed completion of or implementation of an appropriate IEP, thereby denying educational benefit
In some circumstances, the district's unjustifiable delay in completing or implementing an IEP may cause such a loss of educational benefit to the student as to support the need for a private placement and reimbursment to parents. Consider whether the district has failed to complete an IEP at all, leaving it "in limbo" such that the student has no program in place. If this has happened, parents may be faced with a choice between leaving their child with no specialized program, or unilaterally placing the child in an appropriate program and seeking reimbursement. If the issue is not development of the IEP, but implementation, it is important to look at whether the component that has not been implemented was essential to the IEP, and the lack of that component meant that the program itself was no longer appropriate. Again, parents are then faced with a difficult choice between allowing their child to continue in the inappropriate program or unilaterally placing him/her. The cases on this issue are very fact specific, so it should not be simply assumed that any time the district fails to implement the IEP, unilateral placement will be justified. Again, it would be a good idea to have an expert opinion regarding the impact of the delay or non-implementation. For examples of such cases, read Board of Educ. of Chatham Cent. Sch. Dist., 39 IDELR 144 (SEA NY 2003 and Ms. M ex rel K.M. v. Portland Sch. Comm., 39 IDELR 33 (D. Me. 2003).
Student has made no progress in the District's program
When a student has already been in a specific program offered and provided by the school district, and that program has proved to be inappropriate or ineffective, it may be time for parents to consider an alternative. This scenario necessitates looking objectively at the data and information about the child to adequately determine if there has been progress or not, and therefore usually requires an expert's opinion. If the student has been in the program / methodology, ask yourself if he/she has made little to no progress in the specific area being addressed. Also, it is important to look at what the District knew or should have been aware of with regards to the lack of progress. Is this a situation where ongoing progress reports, IEP documents and other data were demonstrating for a significant amount of time that no progress was being made, yet the district ignored such data and continued to offer the same kind of program? Or is it a situation where there was no clear data on an ongoing basis, so maybe no one was aware of the lack of progress until the child was reevaluated much later? An alternative placement may be more appropriate in a situation where not only was the district's program ineffective and inappropriate, but the district also continued to offer said program despite indication that it wasn't working. For an example of such a case, read Draper v. Atlanta Indep. Sch. System, 108 LRP 13764 (11th Circuit 2008).
In some cases, there may be data and evidence that not only establishes lack of progress, but actual regression in some areas. If the child is regressing, rather than progressing, under the district's program, then parents may need to look for an alternative. In these situations, expert opinion would be critical to establish regression. Also, you should consider factors such as whether the district knew the child was regressing, how they responded, and whether they are now offering something different. Fo an example, read J.P. v. County Sch. Bd. of Hanover County, Va 46 IDELR 133 (E.D. Va. 2006).
District has offered a prospective placement that is not appropriate
Commonly, parents consider unilateral placements because of a dispute about what the district has offered prospectively. When the district's IEP and placement offer will not meet the child's needs or enable him/her to obtain educational benefit, the parents may need to consider rejecting that offer and unilaterally placing the child. Again, this is a very fact sensitive scenario, and the parents must consider the IEP offer carefully. An expert who can not only evaluate the child's unique needs, but also observe the proposed placement will most likely be necessary. It is important to look at what the child's identified unique needs are and evaluate the proposed IEP on whether or not it will meet those needs. Consider if there is a specific type of setting, for instance, that the child requires, or whether the child needs a therapuetic component to address his/her social / emotional needs. The totality of the factors will be considered in these situations to determine if the district offered FAPE, and ultimately if the parent is entitled to reimbursement for the unilateral placement. For examples of such cases, read Lamoine Sch. Comm. v. Ms. Z. ex rel N.S. 42 IDELR 172 (D. Me. 2005) and Board of Educ. of the City Sch. Dist. for the City of N.Y. 35 IDELR 28 (SEA NY 2001).
Remember that whatever situation arises that causes parents to consider a unilateral placement, parents need to be careful and consider all of the district's options before making such a decision. Consult with experts, providers and persons who know your child. It may also be necessary to consult with a special education advocate or attorney.
The next blog in this series will discuss another issue in private placement cases, which is consideration of whether the unilateral, private placement is appropriate.