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Olu-Cole v. E.L. Haynes Public Charter School

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

July 19, 2019

Velma Olu-Cole, Parent and next friend of M.K., Appellant
E.L. Haynes Public Charter School, Appellee

          Argued November 9, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:18-cv-00238)

          Stevie Nabors argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

          Lauren E. Baum argued the cause and filed the brief for appellee.

          Before: Rogers and Millett, Circuit Judges, and Ginsburg, Senior Circuit Judge.


          Millett, Circuit Judge.

         The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., creates a powerful statutory presumption in favor of maintaining the current classroom placement of a student with a disability when the school seeks to change his placement over a parent's objections. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j). That presumption is commonly known as the "stay put" requirement. When a child with a disability has been suspended from school, stay put heavily favors promptly returning the child to the classroom. See id. § 1415(k). As an adjunct to stay put, the statute also entitles students with disabilities to "appropriate" remedies like compensatory education to make up for any academic shortfalls that occur during the time they are kept out of school. See id. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii); Boose v. District of Columbia, 786 F.3d 1054, 1056 (D.C. Cir. 2015). The local educational agency must overcome a heavy evidentiary burden to displace the default rule that the child will stay put.

         The district court in this case wrongly denied a stay-put injunction because it placed the burden of proof on the student rather than the local educational agency. And that error has continuing adverse consequences for the student's claim for compensatory education. For those reasons, we reverse and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.


         The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") offers federal funding to States, the District of Columbia, and other United States territories on the condition that they provide children with disabilities a "free appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1), (a)(5); 34 C.F.R. § 300.114-117; see generally Fry v. Napoleon Community Sch., 137 S.Ct. 743, 748-749 (2017). One of the statute's key goals is to integrate children with and without disabilities "[t]o the maximum extent appropriate." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A).

         The "primary vehicle" for securing an appropriate public education is the child's "individualized education program," which is commonly referred to as an "IEP." Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311 (1988); see 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d). The "IEP Team"-which includes school officials, teachers, and parents-crafts the educational plan aimed at "meet[ing] the child's needs" and "enabl[ing] the child to be involved in and make progress in the general educational curriculum[.]" 20 U.S.C. § 1414 (d)(1)(A)(i)(II)(aa), (d)(1)(B). The statute designates the "local educational agency" as an integral member of the IEP Team. Id. § 1414(d)(1)(B)(iv); id. § 1401(19) (defining a local educational agency as "a public board of education or other public authority legally constituted ** * for either administrative control or direction of, or to perform a service function for, public elementary schools or secondary schools"). That local educational agency is responsible for ensuring that the IEP Team both "reviews the child's IEP * * * to determine whether [his or her] annual goals ** * are being achieved[, ] and [also] revises the IEP as appropriate to address" a lack of progress, the results of updated evaluations or tests, and any "anticipated needs." Id. § 1414(d)(4)(A). Certain public charter schools, including E.L. Haynes Public Charter School ("School"), operate as their own local educational agency for purposes of the IDEA. 34 C.F.R. §§ 300.209, 300.705(a).

         It should come as no surprise that parents and school officials sometimes disagree over a child's placement or the details of an IEP. The IDEA provides formal dispute- resolution procedures to address those conflicts. To start, parents or local educational agencies may file a "due process complaint" to challenge the current IEP or its implementation. See, e.g., 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6), (c)(2). That filing triggers a preliminary meeting between the parties, id. § 1415(f)(1)(B)(i), as well as the option of mediation, id. § 1415(e).

         Where impasse persists, the case proceeds to an administrative hearing-commonly referred to as a "due process" hearing, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f)(1)(A)-before a "hearing officer" who is not "involved in the education or care of the child," id. § 1415(f)(3)(A). The substantive touchstone for that proceeding is always "whether the child [has] received a free appropriate public education." Id. § 1415(f)(3)(E)(i). In the District of Columbia, the Office of the State Superintendent for Education is the entity that administers the due process hearings. See D.C. Code Ann. § 38-2572.02.

         At the end of that administrative process, any party still aggrieved may bring a civil action in federal district court to challenge the final administrative determination. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(A). Courts may "grant such relief as [they] determine[] is appropriate" under the law. Id. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii).

         Recognizing that this dispute-resolution process can take time, and that parties will continue to disagree in the interim, the IDEA's "stay put" provision strikes the balance heavily in favor of maintaining the educational status quo for students with disabilities until proceedings have concluded. As relevant here, the IDEA mandates:

Except as provided in subsection (k)(4), during the pendency of any proceedings conducted pursuant to this section, unless the State or local educational agency and the parents otherwise agree, the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement of the child[.]

20 U.S.C. § 1415(j). To put it more simply, "all handicapped children, regardless of whether their case is meritorious or not, are to remain in their current educational placement until the dispute with regard to their placement is ultimately resolved." Mackey v. Board of Educ. for Arlington Cent. Sch. Dist., 386 F.3d 158, 161 (2d Cir. 2004) (emphasis omitted) (quoting Susquenita Sch. Dist. v. Raelee S., 96 F.3d 78, 83 (3d Cir. 1996)).

         The purpose of the stay-put command is to "strip schools of the unilateral authority they * * * traditionally employed to exclude disabled students * * * from school." Honig, 484 U.S. at 323 (emphasis in original) (interpreting predecessor provision codified at 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(3) (1988)). And the Supreme Court has held that stay put applies "particularly [to] emotionally disturbed students[.]" Id.

         But the stay-put mandate is not without limits. The provision carves out an express exception for proceedings "provided [for] in subsection (k)(4)," which governs disciplinary proceedings related to certain forms of student misconduct. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j); see id. § 1415(k)(4). Subsection (k)-titled "Placement in alternative educational setting"-gives schools limited authority to unilaterally suspend students with disabilities for such misconduct. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k). When that happens, the statute authorizes the school to place the student in an "appropriate interim alternative educational setting, another setting, or suspension, for not more than 10 school days (to the extent such alternatives are applied to children without disabilities)." Id. § 1415(k)(1)(B). That placement decision is to be made on a "case-by-case basis," taking into account each child's "unique circumstances." Id. § 1415(k)(1)(A).

         Within the statutorily prescribed ten-day window, the school must determine whether the conduct was a "manifestation of the child's disability." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k)(1)(E)(ii). If it was, then the default rule is that the child must be returned "to the placement from which [he or she] was removed." Id. § 1415(k)(1)(F)(iii); 34 C.F.R. § 300.530(f)(2). If, on the other hand, the misconduct was not tied to the student's disability, then the school can pursue the same disciplinary procedures that "would be applied to children without disabilities[.]" 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k)(1)(C).

         Even for disability-related misconduct, the presumption favoring return of the student to school gives way when the misconduct involves weapons, drugs, or-as relevant here- the infliction of "serious bodily injury upon another." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k)(1)(G); id. § 1415(k)(7) (incorporating 18 U.S.C. § 1365(h)(3)'s definition of "serious bodily injury"). In those "special circumstances," the IDEA authorizes the school to "remove [the] student to an interim alternative educational setting for not more than 45 school days." Id. § 1415(k)(1)(G).

         When misconduct covered by Section 1415(k) occurs, parents may challenge either the "placement [or] manifestation determination[s]" by requesting a due process hearing. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k)(3)(A). Local educational agencies may do the same if they "believe[] that maintaining the current placement of the child is substantially likely to result in injury to the child or to others[.]" Id.; see id. ยง ...

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