Ohio Federal Court Affirms Exhaustion Requirement Under IDEA

Ohio Federal Court Affirms Exhaustion Requirement Under IDEA

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.  























































































































































































































































OSEP Advises State Directors Regarding Serving Highly Mobile Students

OSEP Advises State Directors Regarding Serving Highly Mobile Students

Last month the Office of Special Education Programs and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services issued a letter to state directors of special education regarding the critical nature of ensuring prompt services for highly mobile students with disabilities.  The letter emphasizes the importance of providing prompt evaluations and services to highly mobile children with disabilities as required under the IDEA. It concludes by listing over 40 resources available to districts to ensure quality educational services for highly mobile children with disabilities.

This advisory communication reminds districts that military connected children, migratory children, children who are homeless, and children in the foster care system often experience difficulty becoming oriented into new and varying school expectations and may have difficulty communicating their needs and concerns within these contexts. As such, schools are reminded that the IDEA requires that evaluations be conducted in a timely manner and without undue delay. In those situations where a child transfers to a new school district after their previous district has begun but not completed an evaluation, the expectation is that both districts will cooperate to ensure completion of the evaluation as expeditiously as possible. This includes the timely exchange of relevant records between the school districts as an initial important step in ascertaining student needs.

The guidance further points out that while the use of a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) is a useful tool in identifying student needs, it should not be used habitually as a delay in an initial evaluation for highly mobile children. Because this population is more susceptible to experience recurring educational disruptions, implementing special education and related services can be even more critical to student achievement and success.  OSEP and OSERS jointly advise that postponing an evaluation to implement the MTSS process can be a denial of FAPE, resulting in significant compensatory service obligations. If a child transfers to a new school district during the same school year before the previous school district has completed the child’s evaluation, the new school district may not delay the evaluation or extend the evaluation time frame in order to implement their MTSS process. And although the new school district may choose to provide interventions as part of their MTSS framework, in those situations where an evaluation had been commenced elsewhere, extended use of the interventions could be determined to be a violation under the IDEA.

Finally, the letter recognizes the importance of providing ESY services to highly mobile children if the IEP team determined that such services were necessary for the provision of FAPE. This can be especially challenging when students transfer at the end of the academic year, however it does not appear that short notice to the receiving school of the right to these services will excuse the obligation to provide ESY.

What this means for schools: This is a great reminder of the importance of promptly obtaining educational records of transfer students. This is not only essential to ensure that an evaluation, once commenced, is promptly completed, but to provide continuity of services when the transitioning between districts occurs.



























































SCOTUS to Consider Exhaustion of Remedies Case

SCOTUS to Consider Exhaustion of Remedies Case

The Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear a special education case concerning a family’s obligation to exhaust administrative remedies before filing a claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case of Perez v. Sturgis Public Schools involves a former student of the Sturgis, Michigan school district who was denied a sign language interpreter for many years. The family filed a due process complaint, claiming violations of the IDEA, the ADA, and other statutes. The parties settled the IDEA complaint when the district agreed to pay for post-secondary compensatory education and sign-language services. The former student then sued the district and federal court for monetary damages for ADA violations. The school district argued that, due to the settlement, Perez failed to exhaust the administrative proceedings under the IDEA. Both the District Court and the US Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit sided with the school district – the latter finding that there was no applicable exception to the exhaustion provision under the IDEA, despite the fact that the administrative law judge could not award monetary damages. For that reason, the settlement of the IDEA due process complaint shields school districts from related claims under Section 504 or the ADA. The Appellate Court’s decision is consistent with similar findings in the 8th and 10th Circuit Courts of Appeals. However, suggesting that there may be conflicts among other federal appeals courts, the SCOTUS has agreed to hear the appeal. This is especially important since the high court’s earlier decision in Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools left “for another day” the question of whether exhaustion of IDEA proceedings is necessary when seeking monetary damages that in IDE a hearing officer cannot award. Although the Supreme Court recently ruled that monetary damages for emotional distress were not available under the rehabilitation act of 1973 the court has not directly considered similar damage requests under the ADA. Its consideration of the Perez case will afford the High Court that opportunity.


What This Means for Schools: The court’s ruling will have a significant impact on the remedies available to litigants when the IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA converge.

















OCR Provides Guidance for Pregnant and Parenting Students

 U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recently released guidance linking the protections of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act to students and employees based on pregnancy and related conditions. The October 4, 2022 guidance reiterated that the protections of Title IX that prohibit discrimination on the basis of pregnancy have been in place since 1975. The guidance goes on to provide that schools may not discriminate against any student, or exclude any student from their education program or activity, including any class or extracurricular activity, based on the student’s pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, or recovery therefrom. Furthermore, a school may not discriminate against or exclude from employment any employee or applicant on these bases.

Schools are advised to treat pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, and recovery therefrom the same as any other temporary disability of a student. For employees, schools must treat pregnancy and its related conditions the same as any other temporary disability for all job-related purposes.

The guidance goes on to state that if a school does not have a leave policy for students, or if a student does not otherwise qualify for leave under existing district policies, the school must nonetheless provide leave to a student for pregnancy, childbirth, false pregnancy, termination of pregnancy, or recovery therefrom, for as long as the student’s physician deems such leave to be medically necessary. After the leave expires, the student must be reinstated to the status the student held when the leave began.

Finally, the resource states that a school must ensure that its teachers’ policies and practices do not discriminate against students because of pregnancy and related conditions. This means that a teacher may not refuse to allow a student to submit work after missing a deadline because of absences due to pregnancy or childbirth, and if part of the teacher’s grading is based on class attendance or participation, the student must be allowed to earn the miss credits and be reinstated to the student’s pre leave status.

As with other Title IX matters, students may file a complaint through their school’s grievance process or directly with OCR. For OCR’s purposes, a complainant can include students, parents and guardians, employees, community members, and others, including anyone who observes discrimination in educational programs based on sex, including pregnancy and related conditions.

What This Means for Schools: school districts are encouraged to review their policies and practices regarding student absences, return to school, and policies on work completion to ensure their compatibility with OCR expectations.

SCOTUS Affirms that Schools May Regulate Off Campus Speech – Sometimes…

In a lengthy decision, the Supreme Court of the United States found that a Pennsylvania High School overstepped when it suspended a student from the cheerleading squad for using social media to criticize her exclusion from a spot on the varsity team and a private softball team. The High Court found the school’s actions to be a violation of the student’s First Amendment rights. However, the Court stopped well short of declaring that all off-campus speech is protected from school-based regulation.

After discovering that she did not make the varsity squad, and while shopping in a convenience store the following weekend, the student at issue (B.L.) took to social media to express her displeasure with the decision in two brief Snapchat posts – one of which included profanity. The posts were initially shared with her social media friends, who shared the posts with other friends, including the child of the cheerleading squad coach. This upset team members and became a topic of chatter in a class taught by another coach. In response, B.L. was suspended from the JV squad for the upcoming year. This spurred the student and her parents to file suit in Federal Court.

After first granting a temporary restraining order and a preliminary injunction ordering the student’s reinstatement to the squad, the trial court ultimately ruled in B.L.’s favor, determining that there was no substantial disruption at the school. Further finding that the discipline violated B.L.’s First Amendment rights, the court awarded nominal damages, attorneys fees, and ordered the school to expunge the discipline from her record. The decision was upheld on appeal, with an added pronouncement that schools within the Third Circuit were not free to discipline for off-campus speech, which was partially defined in the opinion as “speech that is outside school-owned, -operated, or -supervised channels.”

The court went on to conclude that, since the speech here occurred off campus, the standard handed down in the oft-referenced case of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (speech that materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disruption or invasion of the rights of others) did not apply. This very narrow reading of Tinker may have prompted the U.S. Supreme Court to accept review to clarify, among other things, the application of the Tinker standard to student speech that occurs off campus.

In its June 23, 2021 opinion delivered by Justice Breyer, the Supreme Court held that school districts may have a special interest in regulating some off-campus student speech. However, that interest primarily exists only when the Tinker test is applied and in so applying finds that the student speech materially disrupts classwork or involves substantial disorder or invasion of the rights of others. However, unrestricted regulation of any speech that may relate to the school is unauthorized. In this case the Court opined that the student’s speech was not disruptive to the school environment and therefore was subject to First Amendment protection.

What this Means for Schools: While the media may portray this case as a victory for the student, in reality it is largely a carefully worded affirmation that, especially in the present technology age, actions away from school may have a disruptive impact at school. Yet the onus remains with the school to show how that disruption is manifested. The Court also affirmed a school’s authority to apply discipline to extracurricular activities only. Districts are advised to review their board policies, codes of conduct and extracurricular guidelines for the necessary support of disciplinary consequences and notice of the possibility of corrective action for violations of school rules.

Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. ( Slip Opinion No 20-255)