The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals held in L.J. v. Pittsburg Unified School District, No. 14-16139 (9th Cir. 2016) that a school district wrongfully denied a student eligibility for special education services when it failed to account for the impact of the numerous special education services already being provided for him at school to assist with his behavioral and academic progress. Further, the District erroneously determined that his conduct and treatment outside the school environment—suicide attempts and psychiatric hospitalizations—did not interfere with his education.
L.J. was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiance disorder (ODD), and bipolar disorder. Beginning in the 2011-2012 school year, the District provided L.J. with behavior support interventions in his general education classroom to address his increasingly maladaptive behaviors at school. However, when that failed, the District placed L.J. in a segregated general education classroom for students with severe behavioral issues, provided him with one-to-one support, and evaluated him for special education eligibility. In May 2012, L.J.’s IEP team found L.J. not eligible for special education concluding he had no qualifying disabilities.
However, during this time, L.J. continued to struggle behaviorally, exhibiting multiple off-campus incidents of suicidal ideation. The District subsequently placed L.J. in another school for the coming school year, and the school psychologist reviewed L.J.’s recent psychiatric hospitalization records. In October 2012, L.J.’s IEP team reconvened, but nevertheless found L.J. not eligible for special education under the category of emotional disturbance. During this time, L.J. was receiving behavioral and mental health supports and had been provided with a one-to-one aide while remaining in the general education classroom. As a result of these interventions, L.J. was making some academic and behavioral progress.
In spring 2013, Parent filed a due process complaint against the District. The Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH) found L.J. not eligible for special education because he had no qualifying disabilities. On appeal, the U.S. District Court found that L.J. did have three qualifying disabilities: specific learning disability (SLD), other health impairment (OHI) due to his ADHD, and emotional disturbance (ED) due to his ODD and bipolar disorder. However, the District Court found that L.J. did not require special education because L.J. was performing well behaviorally, socially, and academically while enrolled in the general education classroom.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the District Court’s decision. The Court explained that under the IDEA, a student becomes eligible for special education if he or she has a qualifying disability, and “the nature or severity of the disability . . . is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” (20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A); see 20 U.S.C. § 1401(3)(A); Ed. Code, § 56026.) The Court found that student here qualified for special education because, contrary to the District Court’s finding that he made progress while in general education, the student was only able to make such progress because he was receiving special education supports while in the general education setting.
“General education is what is provided to non-disabled children in the classroom.” In contrast, “special education” adapts the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction to address a child’s unique needs resulting from his or her disability, and to ensure his or her access to general education. (34 C.F.R. § 300.39(b)(3).) Reviewing the “snapshot” period for the two IEP meetings, the Court found that the progress L.J. made in the general education setting was actually due to his receipt of special education services: one-to-one assistance, mental health services, behavioral interventions, and other accommodations, including persistent teacher oversight, additional time to complete classwork or tests, shortened assignments, discretion to leave the classroom at will, and the option to take tests in a separate room or with one-to-one support. Further, the Court found that student’s suicide attempts were not properly considered in determining his special education eligibility. The fact that the student’s suicidal attempts occurred off-campus was irrelevant. The student is special education eligible if “having a suicidal ideation and attempting suicide interfered with [student’s] education,” regardless of where it occurs.
This case highlights the need for school districts to conduct thorough special education eligibility determinations that take into account the impact of supports, if any, being provided in the general education program potentially including those accommodations and services contained in a Section 504 Plan. Decisions to deny eligibility for students who are receiving specialized academic instruction or services, even if ostensibly in the regular education program, should be made with caution.
If you have any questions regarding how to comply with the rulings in L.J. v. Pittsburg Unified School District, please feel free to contact us at your convenience.