Illinois Elementary School District Must Pay Over $300,000 in Tuition and Related Expenses, Including Future High School Tuition, as Compensatory Education for Former Student with Dyslexia
An Illinois hearing officer recently took the rare step of requiring an elementary school district to pay for a former student’s entire high school tuition and related expenses at an out-of-state private boarding school for students with dyslexia as compensatory education. The hearing officer found that the school district continued to provide the student with an inappropriate literacy program between first and eighth grade, despite his dramatically poor academic performance, which failed to improve over many years. The student’s program was not changed despite recommendations for specific, intensive programs by independent evaluators and the student’s own special education teacher. While schools need not and should not blindly accept recommendations for specific programs or placements by parents, independent evaluators, or staff, schools should continue to carefully consider input from these sources and use data to support decisions contrary to those recommendations. It remains the case that schools have the discretion to implement the appropriate methodology or program for a student as long as the student is making appropriate progress and receiving free appropriate education, or FAPE.
At the time of the hearing, the student was in ninth grade in a new district, but began attending school at and receiving special education services from his elementary school district in kindergarten. The elementary school district was aware that the student had a “reading disorder” since first grade, and that year an independent educational evaluation obtained by the parents recommended that he receive a research-based, multisensory reading intervention program. According to the hearing officer, the school district did not follow that recommendation and failed to develop an IEP that provided explicit instruction to address the student’s deficits. In January of seventh grade, the parents obtained another independent evaluation, which confirmed the initial evaluation and included diagnoses of severe dyslexia, dysgraphia, and dyscalculia. According to the hearing officer, the parents presented the evaluation to the school district, but the district did not review it for seven months. The school district also continued to use reading programs that had proven ineffective for the student, and never used a program that was developed for students with severe dyslexia. The student’s standardized test scores hovered around the first or second percentile in reading and the sixth percentile in language between first and seventh grade. Despite the student’s lack of growth, his IEP changed very little substantively during this time; indeed, he received fewer services in some areas from year to year.
Because of concerns that the student was not improving and needed more intensive services, prior to eighth grade, the student’s parents sent him to a summer camp specializing in teaching students with dyslexia. According to the hearing officer, the first educational progress the student made in reading occurred at that camp. Based on the recommendations of the two independent evaluations and the camp that the student needed an intensive program focused on reading and dyslexia, the parents considered a number of private schools. They eventually identified a private boarding school that offers students with dyslexia daily one-to-one language remediation and a college preparatory curriculum. After the student’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP, team rejected the boarding school as the student’s placement, the parents gave notice to the school district that they were unilaterally enrolling the student for eighth grade and seeking reimbursement from the school district. According to the hearing officer, during his first year at the boarding school, the student made significant progress in reading, writing, and other areas in which he had shown no or even negative progress during his time at the school district.
In the due process hearing that followed, the hearing offer found that the school district’s evaluations of the student in 2014 and 2017 had been inadequate because the team had not seriously considered the independent evaluation reports provided by the parents or the student’s continual lack of progress academically over multiple years. The hearing officer also found that the fifth and sixth-grade IEPs were not appropriate, citing concerns related to unrealistic goals, decreasing services instead of providing services to address deficits, and general goals not tied to specific deficits. Additionally, the hearing officer explained that the school district was aware of the student’s significant deficits in reading, writing, and math, but continued to use the same programs and curricula that had proven ineffective over time. According to the hearing officer, these failures, “repeated year after year,” directly led to the need for intensive programs like the summer camp and private boarding school “so that the student can develop the skills he did not develop in the district’s program and placement.” The hearing officer determined that the student required placement at the boarding school and attendance at the summer camp, at the elementary school district’s expense, through all four years of high school, as compensatory education. This was true even though the student, now in high school, was no longer the financial responsibility of the elementary school district.
This case, although limited to its unique facts, provides some important takeaways. Parents often provide independent evaluations that propose a specific program or placement, and it is critical that teams carefully consider those evaluations and recommendations. It remains permissible for the IEP team to reject those proposals, however, when the team has data to support a different approach. In this case, the school district was found to have not seriously considered the independent evaluations at all. Its failure to follow the recommendations in the evaluations for particular literacy programs was problematic because the student had shown a notable lack of progress over many school years and the school district did not try different approaches to address that lack of progress. The compensatory services award, in this case, was substantial, but districts can generally avoid such liability by closely monitoring student progress and changing the methodology, intensity, or other supports provided to the student to address any lack of expected progress. We will continue to monitor this case for any appeal.