Court Decision Calls Out School District Excuses

By Rosa K. Hirji, Esq.

On February 27, 2017, the 9th Circuit issued a decision, L.J. v. Pittsburg Unified Schl. Dist. that put an end to the Pittsburg Unified School District’s myriad of excuses for excluding a child from special education.

L.J. was an elementary school student with the Pittsburg Unified School District in northern California who began to exhibit suicidal tendencies in the 2nd grade and continued to have behavior problems through the fifth grade.  He was diagnosed with mental health conditions and prescribed serious medications.

For years L.J.’s mother requested special education. The School District denied him eligibility on three separate occasions. Instead the School District provided L.J. with interventions such as a student study plan, counseling and a one to one aide.  His mother filed for due process two times, and received settlement agreements from the School District that agreed to conduct evaluations, but ended up denying him eligibility. The School District claimed that that despite his significant behaviors and psychiatric hospitalizations, he did not qualify for special educations services because his academic performance was satisfactory.

Finally his mother took the School District to due process. The administrative law judge agreed with the School District that even if L.J. had qualifying disabilities, he did not demonstrate a need for special services because his academic performance was satisfactory.

L.J.’s mother took the case to the district court and lost. The lower court found that L.J. did meet the criteria for special education under the categories of specific learning disability, other health impairment and serious emotional disturbance. However, the court held that L.J. did not need special education services because of his satisfactory performance.

L.J.s mother appealed again. This time, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower decisions, and pulled the plug on the School District’s arguments:

  • A school cannot provide uniquely designed services to a child (like behavior interventions services or counseling), and then point to his progress as a reason to disqualify him.  This effectively denied L.J. with an IEP that ensured the services in the future. According to the Court, L.J.’s progress was attributed to the services, and that even despite the progress, he continued to show a need for services.
  • The School District missed the point when they argued that L.J.s psychiatric hospitalizations and suicide attempts occurred outside of the school environment. “It is hard to imagine how an emotional disturbance so severe that it resulted in repeated suicide attempts would not interfere with school performance.” LJ v. Pittsburg The home versus school dichotomy was not relevant to the analysis.
  • The School District failed to consider the impact of L.J.’s medication on school functioning by failing to conduct a health assessment. The proposition that such an evaluation was not necessary because the medications were not administered at school was not accepted by the Court. According to the Court, this failure deprived L.J. of an educational benefit.
  • Failure to provide records to L.J.’s mother was a significant procedural violation that denied her the right to participate in the IEP meeting. The School District withheld assessments, treatment plans and progress notes kept by the school, depriving L.J.’s mother of her right to informed consent. Because she did not know about the records, L.J.’s mother excluded the attendance of mental health providers from the IEP team, resulting in a deprivation of her right to make informed decisions at the IEP meeting.

The Court of Appeals held that L.J. did qualify for special education and remanded the case back to the district court with instruction to order the School District to provide an appropriate remedy. It also ordered the School District to comply with IDEA’s safeguards and warned that additional violations would be costly to all involved.

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