Facts: The student qualified for special education as a student with an emotional disturbance and attended school in the Rockwall Independent School District. The night before the start of her ninth grade year, she left her home without permission, drove with a friend, and was in a car accident. As a result, she was given a 45-day suspension in the district’s disciplinary alternative education program (DAEP). After completing the suspension, she experienced severe anxiety and refused to remain in school. Her psychiatrist recommended a residential placement. The district revised the student’s individualized education plan to include services at the school district in a transition classroom. However, before it could be implemented the parents unilaterally placed the student in a residential treatment facility. She remained in a residential setting for the remainder of the school year and the following fall semester. The parents requested a due process hearing, seeking reimbursement from the district and the district settled the matter agreeing to pay for the 2010-11 school year, and fall semester of the 2011-12 school year.
Toward the end of the fall semester, the parents notified the district that they intended to re-enroll the student for the spring 2012 semester. The district convened an ARD Committee meeting to discuss the student’s transition back to the District. During discussions, the parents proposed a program in which the student would continue at the residential facility, while being allowed to “stop by” the district’s high school and possibly take a theater class, so that she could ease her way back into the district. The parties were unable to complete the student’s IEP and agreed to reconvene the ARD. However, in trying to schedule the ARD Committee meeting, it became clear that the parents would not attend the reconvened ARD meeting and, instead, decided to continue the student’s residential placement. They also filed a request for a due process hearing seeking reimbursement for the placement. The hearing officer ruled in favor of the parents, but the District appealed by filing suit in federal court. The court reversed the hearing officer’s decision and held that the student was not entitled to the residential placement at district expense. The parents appealed that ruling to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Holding: The Fifth Circuit affirmed the trial court decision to deny tuition reimbursement to the parents, finding their actions to be “unreasonable.” To receive reimbursement, a disabled child’s parents must prove both “that (1) an IEP calling for placement in a public school was inappropriate under IDEA, and (2) the private placement was proper under the Act.” In addition, the IDEA and its implementing regulations specifically provide that an award of private school tuition “may be reduced or denied … upon a judicial finding of unreasonableness with respect to actions taken by the parents.” In this case, the appeals court observed that the parents adopted an “all-or-nothing” approach to the development of the student’s IEP and that they “adamantly refused to consider any of RISD’s alternative proposals that did not involve [the student] remaining at the DLC for the spring 2012 semester.” The parents’ actions “broke down” the IEP-development process, resulting in an incomplete IEP for the student for the spring 2012 semester. The Fifth Circuit, therefore, concluded that the parents’ actions, well-intentioned as they may have been, constituted an unreasonable approach to the IEP-development process, rather than the collaborative or interactive approach envisioned by the IDEA. Because the parents acted unreasonably when they rejected the district’s efforts to develop the student’s IEP and unilaterally continued the residential placement, the court of appeals found that they were not entitled to reimbursement for the cost of the private placement.