On August 29, 2017, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Rachel H. v. Department of Education Hawaii (9th Circ. 2017) 868 F.3d 1085 held that the term “location” as used by the IDEA does not necessarily include the specific school where special education services will be implemented and, therefore, an educational agency does not commit a procedural violation by not specifying in an IEP the anticipated school where special education services will be delivered.
Student attended a private school funded by the school district through a settlement agreement. Prior to the agreement’s termination, the Department of Education of Hawaii (“DOE”), Student’s LEA, held an annual IEP meeting and declined to continue paying for private school and, instead, offered numerous special education services to be “implemented on a public school campus,”which was understood to be Kalani High School (“KHS”). Soon after, Student moved to Kailua, approximately 20 to 30 miles from KHS. Because of the long distance from KHS, Student requested another private school placement. The DOE did not agree. The DOE requested Student’s new address so a public school location could be determined. The DOE never proposed a new IEP meeting in light Student’s move, and because she did not provide the requested information, it did not identify a local school for her to attend. Student filed for due process, arguing that the DOE had per se violated the IDEA by not identifying the anticipated school where Student’s IEP would be implemented.
The administrative hearing officer held that the initial IEP offered Student placement at KHS and the DOE’s letter only clarified that it needed more information to implement the IEP at a public school near Kailua. Student appealed the decision to U.S. District Court, which affirmed the administrative hearing officer’s decision. An appeal to the Ninth Circuit followed.
The Ninth Circuit found in favor of the DOE, reasoning that an IEP must contain the location of special education services, but neither the IDEA nor the United States Department of Education (“Department”), which enforces the IDEA, have a definition for “location.” The Court looked to unofficial commentary from the Department, which showed “location” means the general setting in which special education services will be provided, and not a particular school or facility. The Court also looked to the legislative history of the IDEA, which suggested location means the appropriate educational environment for the delivery of special education services, and not a particular school campus. Lastly, the Court found such an interpretation consistent with the IDEA overall, because the IDEA requires LEAs to implement transfers from students’ prior IEPs, which cannot possibly identify particular schools of a separate LEA.
The opinion provides that there is no procedural requirement that an IEP contain the specific school site where services will be implemented. Instead, an LEA must provide the general setting in which services will be provided. The Court, however, made clear that LEAs do not have carte blanche to assign a child to a school that cannot satisfy the requirements of a student’s IEP. Moreover, in those circumstances where a child’s needs demand delivery of special education services at a particular facility, then the location should be specifically identified.