Toolbox Tuesday: That very bright student with emotional issues….

I would guess that every district in Texas has a student like C.B.  She sailed through elementary and middle school with high grades, was identified as “gifted and talented” and took a number of advanced classes in high school.  But there was another side to her story.  She was seeing a psychiatrist and taking medication as early as second grade, and the diagnoses advanced through the years from ADHD to Generalized Anxiety Disorder to Major Depressive Disorder. A very bright student with significant mental health issues.  What is the role of special education for a student like this? 

During her 10th grade year, C.B.’s parents placed her in a residential facility in Hawaii for three months, followed by a second placement in Utah for two months.  This was based on “self-injurious thoughts and suicidal ideation.”  The local school district was aware of this. But based on the student’s strong academic performance, the input of the teachers who knew her, and her robust intelligence, the district did not initiate an effort to evaluate C.B. for special education services.  Was that a violation of the district’s Child Find obligation?

The administrative hearing officer said that it was, and the federal district court has now affirmed that decision.  This turned out to be a harmless error by the school district, for reasons I will explain later.  For today’s Daily Dawg, and in light of it being Toolbox Tuesday, we’re just going to focus on how the court handled the Child Find issue.

Loyal Daily Dawg Readers know well that a student’s eligibility for special education turns on two factors: the student has  to have a disability AND the student has to show a need for specially designed instruction. In this case the school was well aware of the possibility that the student had conditions that might meet the definition of one or more of IDEA’s categories of disability. But there seemed to be no “educational need.”  Here’s how the court addressed that:

NEISD contends any failure to suspect  C.B. should be evaluated is excused by evidence of her superior intelligence and high academic achievement and performance.  Because C. B. always possessed superior intelligence and always maintained high academic performance, even with ADHD, her increased anxiety, and her extended absence due to treatment, NEISD contends it did not have reason to suspect she needed evaluation for special education services. 

The Court finds no merit or support for this contention. 

Really??? “No merit” to this argument?  There is plenty of merit to the contention that a student has to demonstrate a need for special services. But this court emphasizes two factors that we all need to remember when we think about Child Find.  First, it’s not all about academics:

These Child Find and FAPE obligations are not relieved or obviated by a student’s high intelligence or high academic performance.

The school district must not focus solely upon the student’s academic performance, but upon a holistic view of the student’s behavior, academic performance, and other indications.

Second, the focus should be on this particular student’s history:

Of particular importance, the more accurate barometer to respond to a student’s unique needs is to determine whether the student is experiencing academic decline or academic difficulties unusual for that student.  (Emphasis added).

This is the type of court decision that likely drives special education directors up the wall.  My guess is that if this same fact situation was presented to ten federal judges, they would split right down the middle, half throwing a penalty flag for a Child Find violation, and half not doing so.  We lawyers can always play it safe by suggesting that “when in doubt, offer an evaluation.” 

That is the safe approach.  And I am a lawyer, so I’m going to say it: when in doubt, offer an evaluation.

Despite this ruling against the district, the case turned out just fine for the district.  To understand why, tune in tomorrow!

It’s C.B. v. North East ISD, decided by the federal court for the Western District of Texas on February 16, 2022.  It’s reported in Special Ed Connection at 122 LRP 6123.


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Tomorrow: As Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story….”