In a unilateral placement case, when parents are seeking reimbursement for a private school placement, parents must demonstrate that the private placement the child is attending is "appropriate" for that child. This presents what the courts have deemed a "stringent but not impossible" task. Parents meet this burden by demonstrating that the private placement meets the child's needs and provides the child with educational benefit. Courts will look at whether the placement reasonably serves the child's individual needs.
This analysis is obviously fact-sensitive and varies in every single case. The "appropriateness" of the private placement is something parents need to keep in mind at every stage of this process, from deciding to disagree with the district's proposed placement, to searching for an appropriate alternative, to deciding if/when to seek reimbursement.
Things to Consider:
There are many things parents can consider when deciding on a placement. Its helpful to start out with a list of your child's unique needs as a starting place so that you can keep in mind how the different components of various options may (or may not) meet those needs. Then make a list of the things that would be required to be in a program for it to be appropriate for the child. Utilize your experts and evaluators during this stage if possible.
Examples of factors to think about include:
* Class size: does your child need a small class size with fewer peers? higher teacher:student ratio?
* Campus size / setting: does your child get overwhelmed in a large campus setting? are there safety concerns that may arise in larger settings?
* Specialized Instructional Methods: what specialized instructional programs does your child need? for example, does your child need specialized instruction for reading and is it available at this placement?
* Behavioral Components: what type of behavioral program does your child require? will class-wide behavior modification work? does your child require staff with certain training or experience to address his/her behavior?
* Social Skills Components: does your child need social skills instruction as part of a classroom curriculum component? in-the-moment training and facilitation throughout the day? does your child need access to appropriate social-models in terms of peers?
* Training of Staff: does your child require access to staff with specific training or experience working with kids with particular needs / disabilities?
Thinking about topics like these will help parents to ensure that if they are in the situation of having to choose a private alternative for placement, that placement is one that meets the child's needs so as to be considered "appropriate" when they are later seeking reimbursement.
Remember that the appropriateness of the private placement is only one factor, and only applies if the District's proposed placement is found to be inappropriate. While making a list of your child's unique needs and considering these factors when analyzing placement offers and options naturally will lead to some comparison between the District's placement and the private one, remember that comparing them is not the analysis the court will use. It is not enough simply to show that the private placement is "better," because ultimately you must show that the District's placement was not appropriate.