Friday, February 26, 2010

News Alert: Stay Put Awarded to Preschooler with Autism and Apraxia

Today, Mandy Favaloro of A2Z Educational Advocates won a stay put order from the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California in a factually complicated case involving a preschooler with Autism and Apraxia. The victory is a small victory, in that it means only that the child continues to recieve the disputed services during the time that our case is going forward, and does not determine what the ultimate outcome will be. But it is a significant victory in this case nonetheless, not only for this family, but on the bigger issue of stay put in general.

Stay put means that a school district must maintain a student in their "current educational placement" during the pendency of a dispute (at the administrative and subsequent judicial levels) between parents and the school district. "Then current educational placement" refers to that which was in place, agreed upon and implemented (usually) prior to the dispute arising.

In the 9th Circuit (and in some, but not all, other circuits), case law establishes that stay put acts as an "automatic injunction." In other words, when a case is pending, it is a given that the child will continue in his / her current program. Parents filing for an order determining stay put need only establish what the student's current program is, and are not required to establish all of the factors that would be considered ordinarily when a party to an action is seeking injunctive relief.

Sounds simple, right? And in many cases it can be. A child is in a general education class, which has been written into her IEP, consented to by the parents, and implemented. The District proposes to change Child's placement to a special education class, and parents disagree. When parents file for a due process hearing, it is "automatic" that the child should continue in the general education classroom during the pendency of the dispute.

Not all cases are so simple, and determining what makes up a child's "current educational placement" can in fact involve many different factors. Such was this case, and the daunting challenge facing Mandy and the A2Z team has been to effectively piece together rules and holdings from various cases in order to establish the totality of what should be stay put for this particular child.

This case is complicated, in part because the IEP "in dispute" is the child's initial IEP when he transitioned to the school district at age 3. It is complicated because there has never been a fully agreed upon and implemented IEP. Parents agreed upon some parts of the initial IEP and a subsequent IEP, but not all, and District implemented some, but not all, of what parents consented to. It is complicated by the fact that now, there is a decision from an ALJ in an underlying due process case, a decision that finds in favor of parents on some issues and the district on others; a decision that is being appealled by parents now, but only partially. The fact that the decision ordered reimbursements for specific services funded by the parents in the past throws another kink into the analysis, as does the fact that the order for prospective services is less clear than the order of compensatory remedies.

So what is stay put and how do we determine it in such a complicated case? Here are the issues and what we can learn from this case:

(1) Unilateral Placement (i.e. private school specifically) at Parents Expense Does Not Automatically Prevent Parents from Accessing Stay Put

In this case, stay put includes a program that is funded in part by parents and in part by the District. Because parents did not win on their unilateral placement argument (specifically as to the private school itself) at the due process level, and are appealing that finding, there is no requirement that the District would have to now pay for the private school during the pendency of the dispute. It is important to note that, contrary to the District's assertion, Parents did not ask for District funding for the private placement as part of stay put. His "status quo" at the time of the appeal included placement in the private school at parent expense. It is also important to note that the fact that parents decided to maintain that status quo while they appealed the finding regarding the private school of the ALJ did not prohibit them from receiving other services funded by the district as part of stay put.

(2) Continuation of Agreed Upon and Implemented Services is Necessary

The basic principles of stay put require that those components of the program to which the District and parent have agreed, and have been "in place" prior to this dispute, must continue to be provided. Here, there were services from the child's initial IEP which had been agreed upon and implemented, and those services must continue. The District argued that because the ALJ did not agree with Parents regarding the private school (unilateral placement) that they sought, and yet Parents chose to continue in that program, the Student was no longer entitled to services. The Court disagreed, and said that inherent in the stay put provision is the requirement that the District continue those services that were already agreed upon and in place.

(3) "Otherwise agree" includes that which is ordered by an ALJ (and not appealled by parents)

Stay put typically includes the program identified in a child's previously agreed upon IEP, unless parents and the district "otherwise agree." This court found that "where the due process hearing officer 'agrees with the child's parents that a change of placement is appropriate, that placement must be treated as an agreement between the State and the parents' for purposes of stay put." (citing 34 C.F.R. 300.518(d)). Further, "an order for reimbursement predicated on a finding that a previous IEP was substantively inappropriate 'constitutes a change in the child's current educational placement for purposes of interpreting [stay put].'"

Here, the ALJ's order included specifically identified reimbursements for services funded by parents as a result of their dispute with the district's offered program. The school district attempted to argue that no "agreement" had occurred because the ALJ disagreed with parents on some aspects of what they sought (like the private school).

The Court found that the District's argument completely ignored the fact that the District is "required to provide those special education and related services that are not in dispute," and further stated:

The IDEA's implementing regulations require only that the ALJ agree with the
parents that "a change of placement is appropriate," not that
all changes are appropriate, in order to establish an agreement between the
State and the parents for the purposes of stay put."

Ultimately, the court ruled in parents favor and ordered that the District fund the services, while parents continue to fund the private school placement. The services that make up this child's stay put include a combination of those agreed to from the initial and subseuqent IEPs (and thereafter implemented by the District) and of those that the parents previously funded and were awarded reimbursement for in the ALJ's decision. As to the latter, the stay put order specifically identifies the service providers, as they were identified specifically in the reimbursement order by the ALJ, meaning that in this case, the student's stay put will continue to include his current providers specifically.

Mandy did an outstanding job piecing together cases and rulings to make a strong and effective argument in this very complicated stay put case. As this is her very first District Court case as an attorney of record for parents, I think she deserves much props for this outcome. It stands to show that with zealous and dedicated advocacy, coupled of course with a situation where the law is in Parents favor (and someone with the legal savy to be able to show that it is in their favor, even when it's complicated), a positive result CAN happen for students and parents!

A redacted copy of this decision will shortly be posted on A2Z's website.

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