Our experts are better than your experts….

T.M. was an 11-year old boy in Quakertown Community School District in Pennsylvania.   He had been receiving special education services since kindergarten due to autism, global apraxia and an intellectual disability.   Fast forward to fourth grade.  That’s when the parents brought in an independent evaluator who was an occupational therapist and board certified behavior analyst (BCBA).

The court offers a succinct summary of the dispute, which sounds like a very common situation:  the parents are dissatisfied with the student’s progress and think that the student should be doing better.  Their independent expert supports that view. School staff think the boy is doing quite well, given his unique circumstances.

The parties ended up in a due process hearing over the IEP for 5th grade.  The hearing officer ruled in favor of the school district on all points, and was later affirmed by the federal court.  The district comes across as professional and caring.  The court based its decision, to a large degree, on the credibility of the school witnesses.  In terms of experience, education and “time on task” the comparison of the school staff vs. the independent expert was no contest.  The court noted that the independent evaluator “had no four-year college degree. She has no regular or special education teaching degree or experience.” She qualified as an expert on ABA, but “her recommendations about reading, math, speech and language were beyond her specialty areas.”  Since she was neither a certified teacher, psychologist nor speech therapist, she “does not possess the requisite educational background to opine on those topics.”

One more factor limited the weight of the testimony from the independent evaluator: she observed the boy in school for only 16 hours over two days, and on one of those days, a sub was filling in for the special education teacher. In sharp contrast, the school staff had extensive education, numerous advanced degrees, appropriate certifications and had spent 1,440 hours working with the student over two years.  Whose testimony would you believe?

The case is T.M. v. Quakertown Community School District, decided by the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on April 19, 2017. We found it at 69 IDELR 276.


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