MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING - FOREST GROVE SCHOOL DISTRICT V. T.S. DOES NOT CHANGE THE ANALYSIS ON TUITION REIMBURSEMENT

The Supreme Court has issued its much anticipated decision in the Forest Grove matter ruling on the ability of parents of a student who has not been qualified for special education to seek tuition reimbursement under the IDEA. While there have been predictions of doom and gloom were the Court to reach the conclusion it did, that parents in this circumstance may seek reimbursement, a review of the analysis and facts of Forest Grove reveal that in the end the analysis of Burlington and Carter remain intact.

In Forest Grove, the student had been in the District for eleven and a half year with recorded history of trouble maintaining attention in class and completing assignments, which apparently got progressively worse. The parents requested that the District evaluate the student for special education needs, which it did and the District found that the student was not eligible. It is important to note that the evaluation was found to be legally inadequate. Shortly thereafter, the parents removed the student from the District and placed him in a private placement and then sought tuition reimbursement from the District.

The Forest Grove Court starts with the same analysis that has been used in tuition reimbursement for years: First, did the District fail to offer a FAPE? Second, is the private placement appropriate for the student? Finally, does a balancing of the equities weigh in favor of awarding reimbursement? Those familiar with these types of case should recognize the analysis, as it remains unchanged.

In looking at the first issue, the Court held that the failure to properly identify a student in need of special education is by definition a denial of a FAPE. The Court explains, “when a child requires special-education services, a school district’s failure to propose an IEP of any kind is at least as serious a violation of its responsibilities under IDEA as a failure to provide an adequate IEP.” Accordingly, so long as districts properly evaluate and identify students as well as offer appropriate programming, there is no increase in the likelihood that they will be liable for tuition reimbursement.

In looking at the last factor, the Court notes that the equities must also be considered. Included in this is the notice of the placement given by the parents to the District and the opportunity of the District to conduct an evaluation. These factors may be considered and, when appropriate, would justify a denial of tuition reimbursement.

The real lesson of the Forest Grove case is that districts continue to have a child find obligations and districts that meet that obligation have nothing to fear from Forest Grove. On the other hand, for district that have some problems with child find, Forest Grove should serve as a wake up call to show that student who are not properly identified have at their disposal all of the provisions of IDEA, including claims for tuition reimbursement.