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Maureen M. v. Cumberland Public School

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

June 3, 2015

JOHN AND MAUREEN M., individually and on behalf of J.M
v.
CUMBERLAND PUBLIC SCHOOL

MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

MARY M. LISI, District Judge.

The petitioners, John and Maureen M. (the "Petitioners"), individually and on behalf of their disabled child, J.M., filed a petition (the "Petition") for attorney fees in this Court after participating in an administrative impartial due process hearing before an Independent Hearing Officer ("IHO"), pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq. Respondent Cumberland Public School District (the "School District") filed an objection to the petition, together with a counterclaim in which it seeks reversal of the IHO's only finding (of eight separate findings) that was made in the Petitioners' favor. The matter is before the Court on the parties' cross-motions for summary judgment.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History[1]

The Petitioners and the School District are in agreement regarding many of the underlying facts in this case. It is undisputed that during the 2013-2014 school year, the time period at issue, J.M. was in the second grade in the Cumberland School District. Petitioners' SUF 1 (hereinafter, "PSUF"), Respondent's SUF 1, 2 (hereinafter, "RSUF"). J.M. received special education and related services pursuant to an IEP [Individualized Education Program] developed by his IEP team on December 2, 2013. RSUF 2. Under that IEP, J.M. spent 80% of his time at school in a regular classroom. Petitioners' Ex. 19. J.M. also received one-on-one or small group instructions with a special educator in reading, writing and math. RSUF 4-6; Pet'rs' Ex. 19. With respect to writing and math, those instructions took place in the regular classroom; the reading instruction was provided in a separate resource classroom. RSUF 9, 10; Pet'rs' Ex. 19.

In May 2014, following two IEP meetings in April 2014, J.M.'s reading sessions were moved from a "resource classroom" to a small group setting in the "Intense Academic Program" classroom. RSUF 12, 13, 15-17. J.M.'s mother requested to see the classroom where J.M. received reading instruction while class was in session.[2] RSUF 19. The School District declined, citing confidentiality concerns. Decision at 19. Mrs. M. was given the opportunity to view the classroom when there were no other students present, but she apparently declined. RSUF 20. She also briefly visited the classroom with J.M. and his instructor during a "Celebration of Learning" event at the school. RSUF 22.

Another IEP for J.M. was developed on June 2, 2014. Apart from changing the location of J.M's writing and math instructions, this IEP was identical to the December 2013 IEP. RSUF 37-39. Instead of receiving specialized instruction one-on-one from a special educator in the back of his regular classroom as he did before, J.M. was to receive that instruction in one-on-one or small group settings in another classroom. RSUF 40.

On June 17, 2014, the Petitioners filed a due process complaint regarding J.M.'s placement in a smaller classroom. The Petitioners asserted various other claims, including the School's alleged refusal to accept the recommendations of consultants hired by the Petitioners to assist with J.M.'s educational and emotional health. IHO's Decision at 4. Following a number of pre-hearings, the IHO held five days of hearings between September 16 and 26, 2014, in the course of which numerous witnesses testified and a number of exhibits were placed on the record.

On November 30, 2014, the IHO issued a 22-page written decision, in which he concluded that the School "appropriately crafted [an] IEP that provided [a] FAPE [Free Appropriate Public Education] and did not ignore consultant recommendations." He also determined, in the sole finding favorable to the Petitioners, that the School "did commit a procedural violation that inhibited petitioner's ability to participate in the IEP process, " namely, denying the parents access to the smaller classroom setting for observation during classroom hours. All other claims by the Petitioners were denied.

Specifically, the IHO concluded that the Petitioners failed to meet their burden of proving their allegations that

(1) the change in J.M.'s placement to a more restrictive environment was improper;

(2) the proposed IEP failed to provide a FAPE because (a) the proposed IEP was calculated only to provide a de minimis educational benefit, and (b) the School District "failed to accommodate obstacles to J.M.'s ability to access FAPE as a result of his anxiety disorder;"

(3) the School District failed to adopt the recommendations of the Petitioners' consultants; and

(4) the School District committed certain procedural violations that substantively inhibited J.M.'s access to a FAPE.

With respect to the last item, the IHO made four separate findings, only one of which was decided in favor of the Petitioners: (a) that "the denial of access to the classroom for even a brief visit during classroom hours constitute[d] a procedural violation because the denial inhibited the petitioner[s'] ability to be fully informed members of the IEP team." Decision at 17 (Dkt. No. 1-4). The IHO rejected the Petitioners' claims that (b) Extended Year Services were improperly implemented; (c) the School District failed to supply J. M. with an "annual IEP;" and (c) the ...


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