Delaware Appoquinimink School District Prevails In Related-Services Dispute Under IDEA

On appeal from a due process hearing decision, the federal District Court in Wilmington, Delaware ruled in favor of the Appoquinimink School District.

The court was asked to review the decision of a due-process hearing panel involving a parentally placed private-school student. The Panel had previously found that the District was obligated to pay for the student’s American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter at a local private school, despite his status as a parentally placed private-school student.

The parents of the student initially alleged in their due process complaint that the student had been denied a free appropriate public education (FAPE), while enrolled at the Sterck School (Delaware School for the Deaf). They also claimed that there was no appropriate public placement available because their son required a small class size in order to access his education through an interpreter.

As a remedy, they sought a private placement at public expense, the provision of an ASL interpreter as a related service, and compensatory education.

The Panel rejected the parent’s claims of Fair Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and least-restrictive-enviornment (LRE). The court held that the student could receive a FAPE in one of several available public placements. However, the Panel determined that the School District’s refusal to fund the interpreter as a related service was “an abuse of discretion,” because the IDEA and Delaware state law did not expressly prohibit the District from funding the interpreter.

According to the Panel, “[i]n the rational exercise of discretion, [the District] should provide a sign-language interpreter as a related service, and liability continues over the parents’ unilateral placement.” (The full Panel decision can be found on the Delaware Department of Education’s website, linked here: Appoquinimink Sch. Dist., DE DP 06-11).

The District Court gets it right

The School District and the Delaware Department of Education appealed the decision to the federal court, located in Wilmington, Delaware. The Honorable Joseph J. Farnan, Jr. decided the case on appeal. They argued that they were under no obligation to fund the student’s interpreter because of the separate, more limited, set of entitlements given to parentally placed private-school students by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Specifically, the IDEA obligates districts to spend a proportional share of their federal Part B funds on the provision of related services to parentally-placed students who attend private schools located with their boundaries. The nature of the related services provided is determined through meaningful consultations with representatives of the private schools, the point of which is to identify the greatest area of need.

The court agreed, concluding that the Panel committed an error of law by ordering the School District to fund the interpreter. “Where, as here, the District has provided the child with a FAPE and the parents elect to place the child in private school, no liability continues on the part of the District for the payment of that child’s cost of education, including special education and related services,” because parentally placed private-school students have no “individual right to receive to receive some or all of the special education and related services that the child would receive if enrolled in a public school.” Judge Farnan’s full decision can be found on the District Court’s website.

The Court also noted that the costs of the student’s interpreter were more than ten times greater then the entire amount of the District’s proportional share of Part B funds.

Finally, the Court held that that the Panel exceeded its authority in holding the District responsible for the interpreter once it had determined that the student was parentally placed in the private school, because the IDEA expressly states that complaints concerning the provision of services to parentally placed private-school students are not subject to due process procedures.

This was a notable victory for Appoquinimink School District and will be important precedent for future Delaware cases involving special education and school law.

[Editor’s Note: Mike Stafford, the author of this post, is too modest to to note that he and Scott Holt, a partner in the YCS&T Employment Law Department, represented the School District in this case and were instrumental in seeing the case to victory. Well done, Mike and Scott!!]