On September 28, 2020, the Department of Public Instruction (department) received a complaint under state and federal special education law from XXXXX (complainant) against the XXXXX (district). This is the department’s decision regarding the complaint. On November 13, 2020, the complainant informed the department’s investigator that the parties reached a resolution regarding the first issue identified in the complaint (whether the district properly developed and implemented the individualized education program (IEP) of a student with a disability) through IEP team meetings held on October 12, 2020, and October 19, 2020. The complainant withdrew the first issue of the complaint. The remaining issues are whether the district, during the 2020-21 school year, properly determined the educational placement of a student with a disability in the least restrictive environment and properly provided a continuum of alternative placements to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
Whether the district properly determined the educational placement of a student with a disability in the least restrictive environment.
To the maximum extent appropriate, students with disabilities must be educated with students who are non-disabled. Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal from the regular education environment should occur only if the nature or severity of the student’s disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily. 34 CFR § 300.114.
The student’s placement for the 2020-21 school year was determined at an IEP team meeting on August 26, 2020. The team placed the student full time in a special education environment at a location other than the school the student would normally attend. The student’s IEP described this as a “diagnostic placement,” which would continue until a reevaluation of the student could be completed in approximately four to six weeks. The student’s IEP set out the reasons why full-time participation in the regular education environment was not appropriate:
Due to [the student’s] misperceptions of social situations, trouble with her plan not matching the school plan, attempts to engage in power struggles with adults, and challenges with attending, [the student] requires specialized instruction in the areas of sensory regulation and social skills. [The student] also requires the curriculum to be adapted to increase her level of academic engagement. This instruction is not available in the regular education setting.
The IEP notes the student’s parent raised concerns regarding the student’s history of elopement. The student’s IEP provides for the student to take frequent movement breaks in the school. In interviews with the department’s investigator, district staff expressed concerns that pandemic precautions at the student’s home school, which included significant restrictions on the general student movement, would not be compatible with some of the positive behavior supports and services needed by the student, such as the need for frequent movement breaks.
The student’s IEP team met on October 12, 2020, to conduct a reevaluation of the student. The team reviewed the results of assessments conducted in the areas of behavior, occupational therapy, and autism. They concluded the student continued to be eligible for special education in the impairment areas of autism and emotional behavioral disability. The team identified self-regulation and social communication as student needs that could not be met in the regular education program as structured.
On October 19, 2020, the team met to review the student’s IEP and determine placement. The team determined the student’s placement would continue as determined in August. The team identified the same reasons why full-time participation in the regular environment was not as appropriate and noted the student needed a less stimulating, small group setting to provide the student with consistent and predictable routines to learn appropriate social and school expectations. The district properly determined the student’s educational placement.
Whether the district properly provided a continuum of alternative placements to meet the needs of students with disabilities.
A local educational agency (LEA) must ensure that a continuum of alternative placements is available to meet the needs of students with disabilities for special education and related services. A continuum should make available instruction in regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, instruction in hospitals, and institutions as appropriate to the individual needs of students. A continuum is not merely a list of generally available options. Rather, it is a conceptual framework for describing an LEA’s obligation to meet the individual needs of students in the regular classroom and beyond.
The complainant raised concern that the district offered only two placement options for the student: either placement in the regular school environment with three-hour-long class blocks or placement in a separate school. While in this case, the IEP team considered those as the primary placement options, in this case, the district demonstrated that it generally makes a more robust continuum of alternative placement options available to students with disabilities. For example, during the 2019-20 school year, the district provided the student placement at the student’s home school with an individualized schedule in place of more restrictive three-hour blocks. Due to the current pandemic, some portions of the continuum of placement options must be somewhat limited, given the necessary precautions the district must take. This situation is temporary. Given the pandemic precautions currently in place and the student’s specific disability-related needs, the IEP acted reasonably when considering these limited placement options. When such precautions are no longer deemed necessary, the student’s IEP team should reconvene to consider a wider array of potential placement options.
This concludes our review of this complaint. This decision is final for the IDEA State Complaint process. These issues may be addressed through other dispute resolutions, including mediation and due process hearings. For more information, visit the department’s website at http://dpi.wi.gov/sped/dispute-resolution.
Barbara Van Haren, PhD
Assistant State Superintendent
Division for Learning Support