Second Circuit Decision Highlights Unsettled Question of Whether an IEP Must Name a Specific School
In a recent decision, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals addressed a question that often arises in special education cases: Must a student’s individualized education program (IEP) name the specific school where the child will receive services? Although the question has yet to be addressed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, the Second Circuit decision gives continued support to the practice of school districts that do not list a particular school in every IEP, depending on the circumstances. However, despite the Second Circuit’s decision, in situations where there is a genuine dispute as to whether any school exists that can provide a student FAPE, school districts should continue to provide the name of the particular school in an IEP.
In T.Y. v. New York City Department of Education (2d. Cir. 2009), the IEP for T.Y simply stated that T.Y. would attend school in a school district that catered to students with his type of disability, but did not name the specific school that T.Y. would attend. T.Y.’s parents argued that not including the specific school deprived them of their right to meaningful participation in the IEP’s development—a right that they argued includes input as to the location of their child’s school and classroom.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the federal appeals court with jurisdiction over the states of Connecticut, New York, and Vermont, disagreed. The Second Circuit held that identifying only the type of placement without identifying a specific school in an IEP is not always a violation of the IDEA. Specifically, the court noted that “educational placement” refers only to the general type of educational program in which the child is placed, such as the classes, individualized attention, and additional services that the child will receive, not the “bricks and mortar” of the specific school or program that the child will attend. The Second Circuit’s decision was in line with an earlier case in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. In White v. Ascension Parish School Board, 343 F.3d 373 (5th Cir. 2003), the Fifth Circuit held that failure to name a specific school in an IEP was not a denial of FAPE because IDEA does not require parental involvement in site selection. Read broadly, these decisions could suggest that, in the jurisdictions of the Second and Fifth Circuits, there is never a requirement to provide the specific name of a school in a student’s IEP.
The Second Circuit cautioned, however, that school districts do not have carte blanche to assign a child to a school that cannot satisfy the IEP’s requirements. This clarification suggests that T.Y. is in line with an earlier decision by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, A.K. v. Alexandria City Sch. Bd., 484 F.3d 672 (4th Cir. 2007), which held that a school district violated the IDEA by not specifying a school in a student’s IEP where the parents had disputed whether the school district had a school that could satisfactorily provide the level of services that the IEP described. In that situation, the Fourth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over the states of Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia, held the IEP must identify the particular school to offer a FAPE. The Fourth Circuit emphasized, however, that it was not holding that a school district could never offer a FAPE without identifying the particular location at which the special education services are expected to be provided.
Although the Seventh Circuit has not weighed in on the issue, the Illinois State Board of Education has addressed the same question, and agreed that where the existence of a school is not at issue, failure to include the name of a specific school in an IEP will not be a violation of IDEA. City of Chicago Public Schools District 29, 109 LRP 64192 (2008). In light of City of Chicago Public Schools, and the federal court precedent discussed above, school districts should take care to include a specific school in an IEP where there is disagreement between the school district and the parents about the existence of a school that can provide FAPE. However, in other cases where no such concern exists, school districts are still not required to include the name of a specific school in an IEP.