One family's fight to get its town to pay for special education services for its child could set a precedent requiring school districts across the Northeast to pay for private schools chosen by the parents of students with special needs.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit soon will consider the plea of parents demanding that the Scarsdale School District cough up $55,100 for their child's education at Eagle Hill School in Greenwich, Conn., a private school for students with disabilities.
Much is at stake, attorneys on both sides said, including how school districts and parents work together on special education.
Jesse Cole Cutler, attorney for the plaintiffs, said that a court decision in the school district's favor would encourage other districts to deny special education services to deserving students.
"It sends a message to other school districts that they're better off not classifying a child and not recommending services for a student," Levy said.
School leaders fear that a decision the other way will allow parents to unilaterally place children in expensive private schools and stick taxpayers with the bill.
"It sets a precedent for any parent who argues for private placement," said Naomi Brickel, a New Rochelle School Board member and head of the Hudson Valley Special Education Parent Center. "I'd much rather see a district spending money to expand its programs than send students to expensive segregated settings."
DISAGREEMENT ON NEEDS
The Scarsdale case began in 2009, when school officials declined to offer an individualized education plan for a third-grader at Greenacres Elementary School. The student did receive augmented services, but a district committee on special education found that the student didn't meet the requirements for classification as a student with a disability.
The district did not ignore its obligation to the student, said Stephanie Roebuck, an attorney for Scarsdale in the case.
"He received a significant amount of services," Roebuck said.
The parents disagreed. Their lawsuit says the student has been diagnosed with several disorders, including attention deficit hyperactivity, stuttering and the neurological condition dyspraxia -- which causes problems with movement and coordination. The parents placed their child at Eagle Hill and then followed the process to get reimbursed for the private tuition.
LOWER COURT SIDED WITH DISTRICT
A hearings officer determined that the student ultimately should have been given a special education plan by the district, but the officer, a state appellate court and U.S. District Court Judge Cathy Seibel all denied tuition to the parents. Seibel ruled that the parents had not proved that their child's needs warranted removal from the mainstream environment and had not proved that the private school met the student's needs.
"What it's supposed to be all about is making sure the child has the most appropriate placement," said Jay Worona, general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association. The group wrote a "friend of the court brief" siding with the district in the appeal.
Worona said it's "problematic" to obligate taxpayers to pay for services chosen by a parent when the parents' choices aren't supported by objective evidence that they are really helping the student.
Federal law includes a preference for keeping special needs students in a "least restrictive environment," or in mainstream general education classrooms, whenever possible. But in the Scarsdale case, the Department of Justice has weighed in on the side of the parents, calling on the appeals judges to interpret the law in a manner that likely would overturn the lower court decision and require Scarsdale to reimburse the parents for the tuition.
SPECIAL ED KIDS IN MAINSTREAM
Scarsdale schools Superintendent Michael McGill said the district is continuing to fight the case because leaders strongly believe that special needs students should be educated alongside general education students to the greatest extent possible.
"The principle -- that special needs children should be placed in the least restrictive environment -- is important, which is why the district continues to defend it," McGill said.
Brickel -- a parent of two students with special needs -- agreed that students should be in a public school setting, where possible.
"I wish the litigation and the advocacy around this was less about going to a private school and getting tuition reimbursement," Brickel said. "I wish the legal process was focused on, 'How do I make districts support kids in general with disabilities more appropriately?' "