This case involved a determination of the appropriate placement for Beth B., a twelve-year-old girl with Rett Syndrome. Rett Syndrome, a condition that only affects girls, is generally considered a form of Autism and can significantly or profoundly impact a student's ability to function on several different dimensions. It is believed that her motor skills are somewhere in the five to seven-month range. The extent of her cognitive and communicative abilities are greatly disputed and formed much of the factual disputes underlying the case. The student is unable to speak, which, when combined with her motor deficits, makes it impossible to administer the types of tests that would normally be used to assess cognitive and communicative functioning. The professional educators who work with the student estimate her cognitive abilities to be in the 12 to 20-month range, while her parents and private therapists estimate them to be considerably higher. The student appears to be in stage 3 of Rhett Syndrome and expresses interest in people, particularly in faces; smiles; laughs; responds positively to music; expresses food likes and dislikes; communicates through eye gaze, body movement, vocalizations, pointing, and facial expressions. The student is currently able to communicate via computer based assistive technology, but is experiencing problems with this technology that might be foreshadow her transition into Stage 4 of Rett Syndrome, which is marked by a greater loss of motor functioning. She is currently in a wheelchair. The student was initially in a specialized co-operative for special-needs children, but has been in mainstream classes for most of her education. The school district informed the parents that they no longer felt able to meet her needs in a regular classroom and wished to move her to special education classes. The parents resisted that transfer, and the heart of the dispute was the appropriate placement for the child. The hearing officer rejected the parents' position and determined that the school district has offered the student an appropriate educational placement in the least restrictive environment as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C.S. § 1412(a).
How the Hearing Officer Determined the LRE for the Student
The hearing officer took into account a number of different factors when determining the LRE for the student. First, the hearing officer looked at the positions put forth by the parents and the school district. The school district's position was that the placement it proposed for the student in the Educational Life Skills (ELS) Program met and exceeded its responsibilities under the IDEA to provide the student with a free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. They felt that the ELS best addressed the student's educational needs and that they had an opportunity to assess those needs over the six years that the student was in regular education. They maintained that the student was failing to make progress in the regular educational environment. They believed that placing the child in a special education environment, which focused on students with profound or severe disabilities, would allow the student to focus her concentration, minimize distractions, and provide a greater overall learning opportunity. The ELS class would also allow for the teacher to address the student's physical disabilities as well as her cognitive disabilities. Finally, the ELS students interact with mainstream students during lunchtimes, physical education, and peer visits. Finally, the district maintained that the student needed a special education teacher, not merely an aid, a requirement that could not be met in a regular classroom but could easily be met in the ELS environment. The parents believed that IDEA required the school district to educate the student in an inclusive regular education program. The parents advocated an emergent literacy approach that required holistic immersion of the student in a regular education environment.
The first thing that the hearing officer had to consider was whether the student was gaining any benefit from her current placement in regular education classes. "The least restrictive environment means that placement discussions for your child begin with consideration of the regular education classroom" (Parent Education Network, 2008). The school district presented testimony by school district staff, including the student's one-on-one aid that the specialized materials developed to engage the student in the regular curriculum did not engage the student's attention or interest. There was even testimony that the materials was believed to be beyond the student's ability to comprehend material. They also presented testimony that the student's ability to communicate via eye gaze was inconsistent. However, the parents presented testimony by two private providers of educational services, both of whom had worked with the student for several years that she was benefitting from her placement in a regular classroom setting. They expressed the belief that the student could reliably communicate yes and no responses. They point to items like a decrease in the time required to make a response, her ability to focus, and her more practiced eye gaze as significant increases in communication functioning. Furthermore, the parents believe that there are deficiencies in the student's current placement in the classroom, because her aid is the only one who meaningfully interacts with her.
The second thing that the hearing officer needed to consider was whether the ELS placement was appropriate for the student. The IDEA only requires that a school district's IEP for a student be calculated to enable a child to receive an educational benefit, which is not a high burden. IDEA allows parental input on the IEP, but does not require parents' wishes to trump a school district (Nemours, 2012). The hearing officer found this difficult to determine because there had been no comparative studies on which approach is most effective when working with students with Rett Syndrome. However, the hearing officer did not have to determine whether the school district's proposal would actually benefit the student, but whether it had been reasonably calculated to benefit the student.
In this scenario, the hearing officer determined that a placement is reasonably calculated to benefit a student if it reflects careful and competent analysis that includes reasonable efforts to obtain relevant information needed to develop a beneficial placement for the student. Moreover, while school districts had to establish that they had done so by a preponderance of the evidence, the hearing officer had to remain cognizant of the fact that adjudicators such as courts were instructed not to substitute their judgment for the school district's judgment. The hearing officer believed that the school district's proposal reflected a careful and competent analysis that included reasonable efforts to obtain information for providing the student a beneficial placement. Unrebutted testimony from the hearing demonstrated that the school district considered information from a wide variety of sources when coming to its decision. In fact, the district not only considered input from its employees, but also from the private professionals who had been hired by the family to work with the student. Based on all of this input, the district came to the conclusion that placement in the ELS program best suited the student's needs.
One of the concerns that the hearing officer had to consider was whether the ELS program would provide the student with the type of interaction with mainstream students that all parties agreed would help the student with the development of her communication skills. The hearing officer concluded that the parents had raised a meaningful issue about the adequacy of ELS to meet the child's communication needs. Staff members for the ELS program testified that students in the program are able to interact with peers in several different formats, including being mainstreamed into regular classes when appropriate. Furthermore, some of these interactions are more supervised than normal peer-to-peer interactions; groups of volunteer children, who have received some preparation for communicating with students with special needs, come into the ELS classroom on a regular basis. However, witnesses who had observed the ELS classroom observed minimal communication between the students in those classrooms. While the parents may have been right on this point, the school district did not have to demonstrate that the ELS classroom would provide the student with those communication opportunities in order to meet its burden. There is an absence of research on educating children with Rett Syndrome, so that the parents could not demonstrate that the district was failing to somehow meet an established standard for the education of people with this syndrome. The hearing officer, therefore, concluded that any proposed placement for the student would necessarily raise unsettled questions.
Next, the hearing officer had to consider whether the ELS was the least restrictive environment for the student. There is no judicial consensus about the definition of a least restrictive environment, but there is consensus that an inappropriate placement cannot qualify as a least restrictive environment. The school district maintained that placement in regular classes was inappropriate for the student, as she has not benefitted in cognition and communication from these regular placements, which the parents denied. The parents' experts maintained…