Hardin-Jefferson wins one in federal court. Hearing officer decision reversed.

A federal district court has reversed the erroneous decision of a Texas special education hearing officer, confirming, once again, that there is nothing wrong with centralizing services for low-incidence populations.  The case involved W.M., a middle school student.  Everyone agreed that W.M. was properly placed in a LIFE skills unit, a self-contained classroom. The argument between the school and the parents was about the location of services.

W.M. lived in Hardin-Jefferson ISD, one of three districts that participated in the Gulf Coast Co-op for the provision of special education services.  The problem was that there were not enough kids who needed placement in LIFE skills to justify such a unit in each district. Thus the Shared Services Agreement inked by the three districts stated that the middle school LIFE skills classroom would be in Hamshire-Fannett.  W.M. would have to ride a bus 18 miles to get to school.  His parents disagreed with this arrangement and requested a due process hearing.

The special education hearing officer ruled in favor of the parents.  There are four factors courts and hearing officers apply in determining whether or not a district has provided a student a FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education). The hearing officer ruled in favor of HJISD on three of the four. But based solely on one of those four factors—LRE (Least Restrictive Environment), the hearing officer ruled that the district denied FAPE by offering services to W.M. only at Hamshire-Fannett.

The district appealed that decision and obtained a reversal of it. This not only validates the district’s actions. It also blocked the parents’ request for payment of their attorneys’ fees.  The federal court noted that the hearing officer went wrong by getting “location” and “placement” confused.  They are distinct things, but the hearing officer treated them as the same. In this case, the “placement” was a self-contained LIFE skills unit. The “location” was Hamshire-Fannett Middle School. The “location,” or as some courts have put it, the “site selection,” was not in the student’s home school district.  But parents do not have as much say-so on “location” as they do “placement.”  This is not a new concept.  The federal judge cited 5th Circuit authority from 20 years ago in support of her decision:

That parents must be involved in determining “educational placement” does not necessarily mean they must be involved in site selection….Schools have significant authority to determine the school site for providing IDEA services.  Flour Bluff ISD v. Katherine M. 91 F.3d 689 (5th Cir. 1996).

This distinction between “placement” and “site selection” enables districts to allocate resources properly.  That 5th Circuit case, for example, was about hearing impaired students.  There are not that many of them.  To serve such students appropriately, the law recognizes that school districts must manage their scarce resources efficiently.  Providing high quality services at a central location is usually the better choice.

The case is W.M. v. Hardin-Jefferson ISD and Gulf Coast Special Education Cooperative. It was decided by Judge Marcia Crone of the Eastern District of Texas on January 13, 2016.