As school districts continue to feel the bite from parent demands stemming from COVID closures and learning alternatives, the U. S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio recently affirmed that the pandemic does not justify circumventing established due process procedures. In adopting the Report and Recommendation of Magistrate Stephanie Bowman, the federal court affirmed that an Ohio parent is obligated to exhaust those administrative remedies under the IDEA even when they attempt to the raise claims under other laws. 

In this case, the parent of R.Z., a high school student in Ohio, claimed that the school district’s decision to institute remote learning during the pandemic amounted to a failure to provide the student with a FAPE and a violation of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, the Ohio Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, and the Ohio Education of Children with Disabilities Law. The parent claimed that his child could not benefit from remote learning and by imposing such a practice, the District’s policy amounted to a denial of the student’s rights.

The District moved to dismiss the lawsuit before the hearing.  The court granted the motion and dismissed the case.  In doing, so the federal court found that under Fry v. Napolean Community Schools, the Supreme Court of the United States made it clear that exhaustion of the administrate remedies under the IDEA is required when a complaint seeks redress for a school’s alleged failure to provide a FAPE. The court also looked to Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools, a Sixth Circuit decision handed down days before the oral argument on this case and noted that, while the Perez decision did not answer the question of whether a court is divested of subject matter jurisdiction when a party fails to exhaust administrative remedies, the exhaustion requirement still stands. Specifically, the appellate court found that even when a party is not directly contesting the substance or propriety of an IEP whenever the challenge relates to the provision of a FAPE, the determination of whether or not the school complied with the IEP is best resolved through administrative procedures “that elevate judicial economy and agency expertise.” The court went on to affirm that, since the Perez decision did not definitively recognize any exceptions to the IDEA exhaustion requirement, a claim that administrative exhaustion would be futile could not  save this Ohio case from dismissal.

What this means for schools: Now, the US Supreme Court, 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, and an Ohio District Court have made it clear that parents must avail themselves of the administrative hearing process as specified in the IDEA and Ohio law before claiming violations of related disability laws. As the Fry case makes clear, when the gravamen of a complaint rests on an alleged failure to provide a FAPE, the exhaustion requirements under the IDEA must apply.