The label doesn’t matter….unless it does.

How many times have you heard the lawyers tell you that the disability label that you attach to a student’s IEP doesn’t matter, as long as you are providing the services that the student needs?  Many times, I would guess.  The lawyers are citing the numerous court cases that have made that observation.  Most of those cases involve a student who may, or may not, be on the autism spectrum, and the court basically says “we don’t care what you call it…as long as the student is doing well.”

So the label doesn’t matter.  Except….when it does.  And sometimes it does.  In a case from Minnesota the court held that the district’s failure to identify dyslexia and ADHD as the student’s primary disabilities was not a “harmless misclassification.” Instead, it led to an inappropriate IEP that failed to produce good results. The student had average intelligence and worked hard, and yet in 4th grade was still reading well below grade level. The district identified autism as the primary disability. The court found that to be an erroneous foundation for the student’s program. Key Quote:

The District’s failure to accurately identify and classify Student’s dyslexia and ADHD did not amount to a harmless misclassification.  Instead, the misclassification hindered the proper design of an IEP that would have met Student’s needs.  This resulted in the District’s failure to provide appropriate services to Student to ensure appropriate educational progress. 

In other words, because the diagnosis was wrong, the evaluation was wrong. Because the evaluation was wrong, the IEP was wrong. Because the IEP was wrong, the student was not doing well. Because the student was not doing well, the district was not providing FAPE.

As usual, student progress, or the lack thereof, was decisive. If the student had been progressing well in reading, it’s likely that the court would have found this to be yet another “harmless misclassification” case. But this student was not doing well, and the court traced it all back to an erroneous diagnosis. So sometimes the label matters. The case is Minnetonka Public Schools ISD No. 276 v. M.L.K., decided by the federal court in Minnesota on March 1, 2021.  We found it on Special Ed Connection at 78 IDELR 94.


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