Parents file suit in dispute over special education services | TCTA
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Parents file suit in dispute over special education services

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A child's parents filed a lawsuit following a dispute with their son's school district over special education services.

The child was enrolled with the district for kindergarten in the 2018-19 school year. His parents provided the district with a private psychological evaluation that diagnosed the child with autism spectrum disorder, general anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety.

Based on this evaluation, his parents requested that the district evaluate the child to determine whether he was eligible for special education and related services for autism. The district administered a full and individual initial evaluation (FIE) to the child and held a meeting with an evaluation team to review his eligibility for services. The team determined he did not qualify for services.

Several months later, a different special education team in the district met to evaluate whether the child was eligible for services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This team considered the FIE in addition to other information and determined that the child could qualify for Section 504 services based on his anxiety.

During the Section 504 meeting, the child's parents told the district they disagreed with the FIE and requested an independent educational evaluation (IEE) at public expense. The district denied this request and filed a due process complaint that sought a hearing to show the FIE was appropriate.

Prior to the hearing, the child's parents obtained an IEE at their own expense. The IEE concluded that the child qualified for educational services under the eligibility category of emotional disturbance based on his anxiety.

A special education hearing officer held a due process hearing to determine whether the FIE was appropriate. The hearing officer found that it was and denied the child's parents' request for reimbursement for the IEE. The child's parents filed suit, seeking services, reimbursement for the IEE they had obtained, and attorneys' fees and other expenses. The District Court dismissed the lawsuit and the parents appealed to the Court of Appeals.

The Court of Appeals began its analysis by noting that the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to provide a "free appropriate public education" to children with disabilities. Before a district may design a program for a child, it is required to perform a FIE to determine whether the child is eligible for special education services. The FIE must comply with the procedures and requirements in the IDEA.

The parents argued the district court erred in determining that the school district's FIE complied with IDEA because it failed to assess the child "in all areas of suspected disability." Specifically, they argued that the district only evaluated the child for autism even though it should have suspected that his anxiety might make him eligible for services. The district responded that the child did not display anxiety in the school setting and therefore it could not have been on notice to evaluate him for emotional disturbance conditions.

The Court of Appeals determined that the school district did not overlook the child's potential anxiety. There were no observations that the child exhibited anxiety in the school setting or that his educational performance was suffering, and his teachers observed that the child had a relatively normal transition into kindergarten. The Court of Appeals ruled that the district had evaluated the child appropriately and that the lawsuit should be dismissed.