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Seventh Circuit Rules Wrong Standard Used to Determine Eligibility of Special Education Services Under the IDEA

K-12 Education Publications

In Marshall Joint School District No. 2 v. C.D., the Seventh Circuit reversed the decision of an administrative law judge (ALJ) and the district court and held that a student was not entitled to special education services under the IDEA. The Seventh Circuit found that both the ALJ and the district court misapplied the applicable standard in determining whether the student’s educational performance was affected by Ehlers-Danlus Syndrome (EDS) and that the ALJ’s decision was not supported by the evidence in the record.

In 2004, C.D., the student, was diagnosed with EDS. C.D. was evaluated and received special education services in the form of adaptive physical education. Eventually, C.D. began engaging in regular gym class with certain limits placed on his participation to prevent injury and adaptive physical education six times a month. During his reevaluation, the team found that C.D. was performing at grade level in his academic classes, that he had met many of his specific IEP goals for gym, and that he no longer suffered from many of the original problems that prompted his need for adaptive physical education. The team also determined that his needs could be met in a regular education setting with a health plan to address any medical and safety needs. Thus, the team decided that C.D. no longer needed special education services.

C.D.’s mother and physician disagreed with the team’s decision.  C.D.’s parents sought and obtained administrative review of the decision. The ALJ, relying heavily on the testimony of C.D.’s physician, decided that C.D. met both requirements for services under the IDEA because C.D.’s EDS could affect his educational performance when his EDS caused him pain and/or fatigue thus requiring him to have special education services.

The Seventh Circuit rejected the ALJ’s finding and noted that the ALJ applied an incorrect formulation of the test under the IDEA. The Court reasoned that the test does not consider “whether something, when considered in the abstract, can adversely affect a student’s educational performance, but whether in reality it does.” In applying the evidence in the record to the correct standard, the Seventh Circuit held that C.D.’s EDS did not adversely affect his educational performance because evidence showed that C.D.’s prior IEP’s remedies substantially improved his performance. C.D. was performing at grade level and the initial difficulties that mandated special education had been overcome. Further, the Seventh Circuit held that C.D. did not need special education in gym because C.D. had in place a health plan which addressed his safety needs, which were the only remaining issues after the discontinuation of special education services.

The Seventh Circuit also held that the ALJ impermissibly discounted testimony and evidence from the School District. The ALJ relied primarily on the testimony of C.D.’s physician, who evaluated C.D. for only 15 minutes and never did any testing or observation of C.D. and his educational performance. The Seventh Circuit held that although a physician’s diagnosis and input on a child’s medical condition is important in assisting the team in making an informed decision regarding the needs of a student, “…a physician cannot simply prescribe special education.”