United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division
ROSARIA M. and JOHN M. individually and as parents and next friends of F.M., a minor, Plaintiffs,
THE MADISON CITY BOARD OF EDUCATION Defendant.
MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Rosaria M. and John M. bring this action on behalf of their
daughter, F.M., a disabled student. The plaintiffs contend
that the defendant, the Madison City Board of Education,
denied F.M. the free appropriate public education guaranteed
to her by the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act
(IDEA) 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. The plaintiffs
filed this action to appeal the decision of a hearing officer
who determined that the school board did not deny F.M. a free
and appropriate public education during the 2014-15
schoolyear. Both parties have asked the Court to enter
judgment in their favor on the basis of the record compiled
during the administrative due process hearing. For the reasons
explained below, the Court will enter judgment in favor of
the defendant school board.
STATUTORY & FACTUAL BACKGROUND
IDEA ensures that “all children with disabilities have
available to them a free appropriate public education that
emphasizes special education and related services designed to
meet their unique needs and prepare them for further
education, employment, and independent living . . . .”
20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). The IDEA defines a free
appropriate public education - i.e. a “FAPE” -
special education and related services that -
(A) have been provided at public expense,
under public supervision and direction, and without charge;
(B) meet the standards of the State
(C) include an appropriate preschool,
elementary school, or secondary school education in the State
(D) are provided in conformity with the
individualized education program required under section
1414(d) of this title.
IDEA contemplates that federal and state authorities will
cooperate to provide disabled students with a FAPE. To that
end, the federal government provides funding to state
educational agencies, and the agencies agree to comply with
the procedures and conditions imposed by the IDEA. See
generally 20 U.S.C. §1412(a). The Madison City
Board of Education is a state education agency that accepts
federal funding and is covered by the provisions of the IDEA.
(Doc. 8, p. 3).
the IDEA, state educational agencies must identify and
evaluate students who qualify for the special education
services mandated under the IDEA. 28 U.S.C. §
1412(a)(3)(A). When the state identifies a qualified student,
the individualized education program (IEP) is the primary
tool by which a state educational agency accomplishes its
mandate to provide disabled students with an appropriately
tailored education. See Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v.
Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist., 137 S.Ct. 988, 994 (2017)
(quoting Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988)). An
IEP is a written document that a public school produces in
collaboration with a student's parents or guardians, the
student's general and special education teachers, and the
representatives of the state educational agency collectively
known as the IEP team. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(B).
ensure that the IEP team appropriately considers a
student's particular challenges and needs when designing
a plan, the IDEA states that an IEP must contain certain
information. An IEP must describe the student's
disability and the disability's effect on the
student's participation in the general education
curriculum, the student's present levels of achievement,
the goals the student is to reach under the IEP program, and
additional services that the school will provide to aid the
student in achieving those goals. See §§
1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(I)-(III). The IEP team must meet at least
annually to review the program, to verify the program's
effectiveness, and to ensure that it remains responsive to
the student's changing educational needs. §
and educators often agree about what a child's IEP should
contain. But not always. When disagreement arises, parents
may turn to dispute resolution procedures established by the
IDEA.” Endrew F., 137 S.Ct. at 994. Parents
who disagree with an aspect of their child's IEP may
present their grievance to an impartial hearing officer at a
due process hearing. § 1415(f)(1)(A). If either party
disagrees with the outcome of the due process hearing, then
they may seek review of that decision by filing a civil
action in “any State court of competent jurisdiction or
in a district court of the United States . . . .”
Rosaria M. and John M. are parents of a disabled child who
have exercised the due process and appeal rights that the
IDEA provides. Their daughter, F.M., is a ten-year-old child
with a specific learning disability. (Doc. 13- 18, pp. 16,
30). Ms. M. states that F.M. has ADHD and dyslexia. (Doc.
13-9, pp. 5, 115).
fall of 2014, plaintiffs moved their family from Pennsylvania
to Madison City, Alabama. They enrolled F.M. and her older
sister at Mill Creek Elementary on October 14, 2014. (Doc.
13-9, pp. 10-11, 33). F.M. had completed preschool and
kindergarten in Pennsylvania. (Doc. 13-9, pp. 11, 18-19). She
also had attended roughly a month of first grade before her
family moved and enrolled her in first grade at Mill Creek.
(Doc. 13-9, p. 27). While the family was still in the
Pennsylvania school system, the school district evaluated
F.M.'s older sister and determined that she was eligible
for special education. (Doc. 13-9, pp. 28-29). Based on the
feedback that Ms. M. received from F.M.'s teachers in
Pennsylvania, Ms. M. suspected that F.M. also might be
eligible for special education services. (Doc. 13-9, pp.
29-33). She approached F.M.'s first grade teacher and the
principal at Mill Creek, and she expressed interest in having
F.M. evaluated. She made a formal written request for an
evaluation on November 4, 2014. (Doc. 13-9, pp. 35-36, 40-41;
Doc. 13-17, pp. 55).
Ms. M. submitted her written request, F.M.'s first grade
teacher, Rebecca Davis, noticed that F.M. had behavioral and
academic issues in the classroom. F.M.'s initial
assessments put her well below her first grade classmates in
terms of her academic ability. (Doc. 13-3, pp. 31, 45). F.M.
was unable to remain still or attentive during class, and Ms.
Davis found that F.M. needed frequent redirection to complete
even basic tasks. (Doc. 13-3, pp. 41; 45). Due to these
concerns, Ms. Davis met with Ms. M. and assistant principal
Kathleen McKay to suggest that F.M. be enrolled in
kindergarten for the year. (Doc. 13-3, p. 7). Ms. M.
requested that F.M. remain in first grade. (Doc. 13-3, p.
35). Mill Creek honored that request and offered F.M. some
general educational supports including tutoring three days a
week and classes in English-as-a-second language (ESL),
because the school mistakenly believed that Ms. M. spoke a
foreign language with her daughters. (Doc. 13-3, pp. 36-38;
Doc. 13-9, pp. 36-37). Ms. Davis referred her concerns
regarding F.M. to Mill Creek's “Problem Solving
Team, ” so that she (Ms. Davis) could develop
strategies for responding to F.M.'s classroom issues.
(Doc. 13-3, p. 152). Ms. Davis permitted Ms. M. to observe
F.M.'s class on several occasions and communicated with
Ms. M. regularly. (Doc. 13-3, pp. 39-40, 68, 89; Doc. 13-9,
the school received Ms. M's written request for an
evaluation, the school board's special education
eligibility team assessed F.M. in the areas of hearing,
speech/language, academic achievement, behavior, and
environmental concerns. (Doc. 13-5, p. 205; Doc. 13-6, p. 21;
Doc. 13-18, pp. 16-22, 25-26). The eligibility team also
considered F.M.'s medical records, obtained from treating
physicians near the family's former home, and
observational information from F.M.'s parents and Ms.
Davis. (Doc. 13-18, pp. 26-28). On January 16, 2015, the
eligibility team determined that F.M. had a specific learning
disability and that she was eligible for special education
services. (Doc. 13-18, p. 30).
February 6, 2015, the Board conducted an IEP meeting. The
plaintiffs met with Ms. Davis; Assistant Principal McKay;
Mill Creek's special education teacher, Alicia Waddail;
and F.M.'s ESL teacher, Michelle Phillips, to design an
educational program that would assist F.M. in her areas of
difficulty. (Doc. 13-14, p. 21). At this IEP meeting, Ms. M.
claims that she informed the other members of the IEP team
that F.M. suffered from hypoglycemia and Multiple Hereditary
Exostoses (MHE), also called Osteochondroma, a condition that
causes the rapid growth of benign tumors on F.M.'s bones.
(Doc. 13-9, pp. 4-5, 44-45). Although F.M.'s teachers
were aware of F.M.'s diagnosis, both Ms. Davis and Ms.
Waddail testified that they became aware of the diagnosis
after the initial IEP meeting. (Doc. 13-3, pp. 189-90; Doc.
13-4, pp. 155-56).
on the information discussed in the IEP meeting, the IEP team
targeted four areas for improvement: articulation, behavior,
math, and fluency. (Doc. 13-14, pp. 16-19). Under her IEP,
F.M. received several hours of special instruction from Ms.
Waddail each week to focus on basic kindergarten and first
grade skills. Ms. Waddail and F.M. also used this time to
complete any assignments that F.M. was unable to finish in
class. (Doc. 13-4, pp. 45-47; Doc 13-14, p. 20).
early April 2015, Ms. Davis informed the plaintiffs that F.M.
would likely have to remain in the first grade because F.M.
did not meet the state's general education standards for
advancement to the second grade in the areas of reading and
math. (Doc. 13-2, pp. 118, 230-31; Doc. 13-18, pp. 11-13). In
May, Mill Creek's retention committee discussed
F.M.'s case, reviewed her test results and Ms.
Davis's input, and determined that F.M. would return to
the first grade for the 2015-16 academic year. (Doc. 13-2,
pp. 77, 108-109). The consensus of F.M.'s teachers was
that “if she had another year in the 1st grade to
receive those foundational skills that it would set her up
for success.” (Doc. 13-2, p. 139).
Davis and Assistant Principal McKay informed the plaintiffs
of the committee's decision at a conference on May 14,
, 2015. (Doc. 13-3, pp. 113-14). The plaintiffs
did not agree with the decision and expressed their concern
that retaining F.M. in the first grade would cause her
emotional or psychological harm; they reported that F.M.
already suffered from low self-esteem caused by the prospect
of retention. (Doc. 13-9, pp. 110, 141). The plaintiffs
contend that after they learned that F.M. would have to
repeat first grade, they asked Mill Creek to provide F.M.
with extended year services (ESY) and that the school denied
their request. (Doc. 13-9, pp. 70-71). The teachers and
administrators at Mill Creek who spoke with the plaintiffs
dispute this fact, claiming that the conversation focused on
what the plaintiffs could do to see that F.M. was promoted to
second grade. (Doc. 13-3, pp. 115, 119-20, 252). The parties
agree that the plaintiffs requested instructional materials,
so that they could tutor F.M. in hopes that she could test
into the second grade before the start of the 2015-16
academic year. (Doc. 13-3, p. 115; Doc. 13-9, p. 110).
Davis and Ms. Waddail provided some supplementary materials
for the plaintiffs to use with F.M. during the summer. (Doc.
13-9, pp. 112-113). Ms. M. worked through these materials
with F.M. during the summer, and the school board reassessed
F.M.'s readiness for second grade after her summer
preparations. (Doc. 13-9, pp. 114, 117). F.M.'s scores
indicated that she was not prepared for second grade, and the
school board determined that the decision to retain F.M. in
the first grade was sound. (Doc. 13-9, pp. 134-36).
F.M. returned to Mill Creek in August 2015, she was assigned
to Celynn Ballard's class, but she continued to work with
Ms. Waddail in special education. Ms. Ballard noted that in
the early weeks of the new school year, F.M. was having more
success completing her assignments during class and that
F.M.'s behavior and attentiveness generally had improved.
(Doc. 13-6, pp. 72-74, 101-102). F.M. left Mill Creek in late
September 2015 to undergo a medical procedure related to her
MHE. (Doc. 13-9, pp. 151-52). When she recovered, the
plaintiffs removed her from Mill Creek and enrolled her in an
online educational program. (Doc. 13-9, p. 154).
plaintiffs filed their due process complaint on September 14,
2015. (Doc. 13-12, p. 16). The defendants argue that the
school board failed to comprehensively evaluate F.M. in all
suspected areas of disability and that her IEP was not
reasonably calculated to provide her with a FAPE. (Doc. 13-1,
pp. 2-3). Over nine days, the hearing officer heard extensive
testimony and compiled a substantial evidentiary record.
(Doc. 13-1, pp. 4-6). The hearing officer rendered a decision
in the school board's favor on all the plaintiffs'
claims and concluded that the school board had not denied
F.M. a FAPE during the 2014-15 schoolyear. (Doc. 13-1, p.
55-61). The plaintiffs filed this civil action on April 11,
2016. (Doc. 1).
facts suffice as background to the case, but the Court offers
additional facts below as they bear on the legal analysis.
STANDARD OF REVIEW
party to a due process hearing aggrieved by the hearing
officer's decision may seek review of that decision by
filing a civil action “in a district court of the
United States.” Draper v. Atlanta Indep. Sch.
Sys., 518 F.3d 1275, 1280 (11th Cir. 2008) (quoting 20
U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A)). “[T]he party attacking
the IEP bears the burden of showing that the IEP is
inappropriate.” Devine v. Indian River Sch.
Bd., 249 F.3d 1289, 1292 (11th Cir. 2001); see
also Ala. Admin. Code 290-8-9-.08(9)(c).
Supreme Court has formulated a two-part test to determine
whether a school has provided a student with a FAPE:
“[f]irst, has the State complied with the procedures
set forth in the Act? And second, is the individualized
educational program developed through the Act's
procedures reasonably calculated to enable the child to
receive educational benefits?” Bd. Ed. Hendrick
Hudson Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206-07
(1982). Whether an educational program provided an adequate
education under the Act “is a mixed question of law and
fact.” CP v. Leon Cty. Sch. Bd. Fla., 483 F.3d
1151, 1155 (11th Cir. 2007).
usual F.R. Civ. P. 56 summary judgment principles do not
apply in an IDEA case.” Loren F ex rel. Fisher v.
Atlanta Indep. Sch. Sys., 349 F.3d 1309, 1313 (11th Cir.
2003). “A District Court may issue a judgment on the
record based ‘on the preponderance of the evidence,
' . . . even when facts are in dispute.” R.L.
v. Miami-Dade Cty. Sch. Bd., 757 F.3d 1173, 1178 (11th
Cir. 2014) (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii)). A
district court may accept the conclusions of the hearing
officer that are supported by the record and reject those
that are not. R.L., 757 F.3d at 1178.
“[A]dministrative factfindings are considered to be
prima facie correct, and if a reviewing court fails to adhere
to them, it is obliged to explain why.” M.M. ex
rel. C.M. v. Sch. Bd. Miami-Dade Cty., 437 F.3d 1085,
1097 (11th Cir. 2006) (quoting Loren F., 349 F.3d at
plaintiffs argue that the defendant committed both procedural
and substantive violations of the IDEA. The Court, adhering
to the two part test announced in Rowley, first
addresses plaintiffs' allegations of procedural
deficiencies. Then the Court addresses the plaintiffs'
additional reasons for arguing that F.M.'s IEP was not
reasonably calculated to provide a FAPE.
The Adequacy of the School Board's Evaluation of
plaintiffs contend that the school board's evaluation of
F.M. was procedurally deficient because the school board did
not comprehensively evaluate F.M. in all suspected areas of
disability. The plaintiffs argue that (i) the board did not
conduct a formal behavioral assessment of F.M., and (ii) the
evaluation that the school performed focused too narrowly on
F.M.'s academic issues to the exclusion of behavioral and
medical concerns. (Doc. 17, p. 22). The plaintiffs submit
that, “[w]ithout a full and complete evaluation, it was
impossible for a School District to meet its FAPE
responsibility.” (Doc. 17, p. 24). The plaintiffs also
argue that the school board unreasonably delayed an
evaluation of F.M. for eligible disabilities. (Doc. 19, p.
the IDEA, a state must ensure that “[a]ll children with
disabilities residing in the State . . . who are in need of
special education and related services, are identified,
located, and evaluated . . . .” 20 U.S.C. §
1412(a)(3)(A). When a school board, as an agent of the state,
identifies a student who exhibits signs of a covered
disability, the school board must evaluate the student
“in all areas related to the suspected disability,
including, if appropriate, health, vision, hearing, social
and emotional status, general intelligence, academic
performance, communicative status, and motor abilities . . .
.” 34 C.F.R. 300.304(c)(4). The school's evaluation
of the student must be “sufficiently comprehensive to
identify all of the child's special education and related
services needs, whether or not commonly linked to the
disability category in which the child has been
classified.” 34 C.F.R. 300.304(c)(6).
The School Board's Assessment of F.M.'s ...