It’s Toolbox Tuesday!! Let’s talk about how NOT to do a manifestation determination!

We can learn a lot from cases that school districts lose. And when that case is from someplace other than the great State of Texas, we don’t mind sharing it with you. So let’s talk about what we can learn about manifestation determination reviews (MDRs) from the mistakes made by Bristol Township School District in Pennsylvania.

Lesson one: Don’t fill out the MDR paperwork before the ARD meeting.  The school official leading the meeting filled out the forms ahead of time, checking the boxes indicating that the behavior was not a manifestation of the student’s ADHD.  She then asked the members of the team, “Does anyone have any concerns with that?  Does anyone have anything they’d like me to add or subtract at this point?”  The court took a dim view of that method:

But ultimately, Dr. Newsham convened the manifestation determination with a prefabricated document that encompassed solely her views and conclusions and then asked if anyone objected.

The court compared this with:

filling in background information gathered ahead of time in order to facilitate meaningful discussion about the appropriate answers to the two crucial questions at the heart of the manifestation determination.”

The court would have been OK with that. But not with boxes checked to answer the crucial questions before the meeting began.  So it you want to get a head start on the paperwork, just fill in name, grade level, date, people participating—but NOT the answers to the ultimate questions.

Lesson two: hold the general education due process hearing before the ARD meeting.  Now, the court did not flat out say that. But the court did fault the school district for conducting the MDR based on a sketchy investigation and a “global” rather than “specific” review of the facts.  The aforementioned Dr. Newsham confirmed that the team took this approach:

To be quite honest, we looked at it more from a global picture. We didn’t [dive] into the specifics. We weren’t looking at what occurred during that specific incident. We were looking at does [the student’s] disability have anything to do with aggressive behaviors?

The court held that the team “could not have meaningfully addressed whether the conduct in question was a manifestation of [the student’s] disability without more information about the incident in question.”

In the Toolbox Training, I recommend that ARD Committees do their MDR only AFTER the campus administrators have conducted a hearing, or held a conference with the student to hear the student’s side of the story and get a more fleshed out picture of the incident.  This case is an illustration of why I give this advice.

Toolbox Training could be coming your way—just ask!  It’s a one-day program to teach the ten “tools” that empower you to serve students appropriately, in the LRE, and safely. Let me know if you are interested.  Reach me at

The case is Bristol Township School District v. Z.B., decided by the federal court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on January 14, 2016.  We found it at 67 IDELR 9.