5th Circuit rules for Fort Bend in special education case—reversing lower court.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that Fort Bend ISD is not legally responsible for the costs of a residential placement for a student with a disability.  There was a lot at stake in the case, as the lower court had ordered reimbursement of tuition at the rate of $7,000 per month, along with over $600 in transportation costs and $90,000 in attorneys’ fees. The appellate court reversed, and rendered judgment in favor of the FBISD.

The basis for the ruling was the court’s conclusion that the private, residential placement chosen by the parents was not “appropriate.” The parents had placed their son at CALO—Change Academy Lake of the Ozarks. The court described CALO as a mental-health facility in Missouri. The high school student had previously attempted suicide, and was regularly using marijuana. Pulling him out of the public school, the parents first put the student at a wilderness camp in Utah, and then at CALO.

The court cited two crucial factors in its analysis. Was the child placed at the facility “for educational reasons”?   And would progress at the facility be judged primarily by educational achievement? The parents failed to satisfy either of those tests.

The first factor concerns the “motivation of the person making the placement.” This placement was motivated by fear of another suicide attempt, and concern over substance abuse. The court said that “there is no evidence showing that [the parents] then enrolled Z.A. at CALO for educational reasons.”

As to the second factor: “The evidence, however, plainly supports finding that Z.A.’s progress was not judged primarily by educational achievement.” Instead, the effort was to treat the student’s underlying disability. Educational achievement may have been an outcome, but it was not the primary indicator of success.

The court ordered that its opinion not be “published” in the official legal reports that create precedent to be followed in future cases. Nevertheless, the opinion is published on the 5th Circuit’s website, and provides a good illustration of the analysis courts will use in dealing with residential placements.

The case is Fort Bend ISD v. Douglas A., decided by the 5th Circuit on February 5, 2015. Here’s the link to the opinion: http://www.ca5.uscourts.gov/opinions/unpub/14/14-20101.0.pdf