United States District Court, D. Connecticut
MR. AND MRS. P. ON THEIR OWN BEHALF, AND AS NEXT FRIENDS OF M.P., PLAINTIFFS,
WEST HARTFORD BOARD OF EDUCATION, et al., DEFENDANTS
MEMORANDUM OF DECISION DENYING PLAINTIFFS' MOTION
FOR JUDGMENT ON THE ADMINISTRATIVE RECORD [DOC. #32], AND
GRANTING DEFENDANTS' CROSS-MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT
Vanessa L. Bryant United States District Judge.
Plaintiffs, Mr. and Mrs. P. (“Parents”), on their
own behalf and as next friends of M.P.
(“Student”), bring this action against the West
Hartford Board of Education, Superintendent Tom Moore, and
Director of Pupil Services Glenn McGrath (collectively, the
“Board”) to appeal in its entirety an October 2,
2014 final decision, issued by a Due Process Hearing Officer
(“Hearing Officer”), that (i) the Board provided
adequate Free Appropriate Public Education
(“FAPE”) to Student from the fall semester of
2011 through summer 2014; (ii) the Board failed to propose
appropriate transportation for Student for the 2014-2015
school year; (iii) the Board's procedure was appropriate
as to (a) identifying Student in a timely manner; (b)
providing appropriate evaluations; and (c) implementing
appropriate transition planning; and (iv) the Board's
procedure was lacking, but did not deny Student FAPE or deny
Parents a meaningful opportunity to participate, as to (a)
keeping incomplete IEP documents and (b) failing to provide
consistent programming for Student. [Dkt. No. 32
(“Mot.”) at 12-13.]
Before the Court is Parents' Motion for Summary Judgment
on the Administrative Record as to counts one and five of
Plaintiffs' Second Amended Complaint [Dkt. No. 27
(“SAC”)], requesting that the Court reverse the
decision of the Due Process Hearing Officer and award Student
compensatory education in the form of placement in the
Options program, and reasonable attorney's fees and
costs. Mot. at 1. Also before the Court is the Board's
Cross-Motion for Summary Judgment on the Administrative
Record as to all counts of the SAC, and for dismissal of
Superintendent Thomas Moore and Director of Pupil Services
Glenn McGrath as defendants for failure to state any claims
against them as individuals. [Dkt. No. 34
(“Cross-Motion”).] Parents consent to dismissal
without prejudice of counts two, three, and four of their
Complaint. [Dkt. No. 38 (“Plaintiffs'
Sur-Reply”) at 1 n.2.] Because Parents do not allege
any causes of action against Messers. Moore or McGrath in
their individual capacities, the Court also dismisses them as
individual defendants, without prejudice.
following statement of facts is based on the exhibits and
testimony that comprised the administrative record presented
to the Hearing Officer. [Dkt. No. 21 (“Administrative
began his sophomore year at Hall High School in West Hartford
in fall 2011. 6/9/2014 Hearing Transcript (Mother's
testimony) at 63-64. Over the course of the school year,
Student's grades declined. Id. at 66-67. In
December 2011, Student was hospitalized for suicidal
ideation. Id. at 66-67. Parents notified the Board
of Student's hospitalization for suicidal ideation, and
on December 8, 2011 the Board met with Parents to discuss
reducing Student's workload and assisting him with
organizational skills. Id. at 69-71.
January 31, 2012, the Board held a meeting under
Rehabilitation Act Section 504, and determined Student was
eligible for accommodations due to Attention Deficit
Hyperactivity Disorder (“ADHD”). Id. at
71; Ex. B-2 (504 Meeting record). Student's school
attendance declined in February 2012, and the Board arranged
homebound tutoring for Student. 6/9/2014 Hearing Transcript
(Mother's testimony) at 73.
referred Student for special education in March 2012, and in
response, the Board held a PPT. Ex. B-3 (3/12/2012 PPT
record). The PPT considered Student's declining grades in
the second semester of his sophomore year, and Student's
beginning behavioral improvement due to medication.
Id. The Board determined the duration of
Student's condition was not yet prolonged enough to
qualify for special education, but scheduled a follow-up PPT
for April 23, 2012. Id.
April 23, 2012 meeting, Parents alerted the Board that
Student had been hospitalized for aggressive ideation. Ex.
B-4 (4/23/2012 PPT record). The PPT considered Student's
hospitalization due to emotional concerns and aggressive
thoughts, Parents' statement that Student's
psychiatric medications were helping, and Student's
ongoing homebound tutoring. Id. The PPT decided to
increase Student's homebound tutoring to eight hours per
week, and have Student evaluated for eligibility for special
9, 2012, the Hall High School psychologist evaluated Student.
Ex. B-5 (5/9/2012 Evaluation). The Hall psychologist
administered BASC-2, an evaluation which asked teachers,
Parents, and Student a series of questions to determine
behavioral and emotional issues. Id. The Hall
psychologist's report also noted Student's
hospitalizations, experiences with therapy, absences from
school, and general outlook. Id. Ultimately, the
Hall psychologist found that “given [Student's]
psychiatric diagnoses and school refusal behavior it is
recommend the PPT explore the possibility of a special
education mandate under the category of Emotional
10, 2012, the District psychiatrist conducted a consultation
consisting of an interview with Student. Ex. B-6 (5/10/2012
Evaluation). He noted that Student was hospitalized in
December 2011 for suicidal ideation and was diagnosed with
ADHD while admitted, and was subsequently hospitalized and
medicated for homicidal ideation. Id. In addition,
the District psychiatrist considered that Student was failing
four classes at the time and suffered from panic attacks
consisting of palpitations, shortness of breath, sweaty
palms, and nausea, and the panic attacks subsided when he
began homebound tutoring in January 2012. Id. The
District psychiatrist concluded Student might have
Asperger's Disorder and Reactive Attachment Disorder and
recommended he participate in STRIVE, an alternative high
school special education program (discussed further below).
met again on May 17, 2012 to review the results of these
examinations, and at a June 11, 2012 meeting declared Student
eligible for special education. Ex. B-8 (6/11/2012 PPT
June 19, 2012 meeting, the PPT placed Student in STRIVE for
the 2012-2013 school year, Student's junior year. B-9
(6/19/2012 PPT record). Students enrolled in STRIVE are
subject to the same graduation requirements as other students
in the West Hartford Public School System; they study
modified versions of the same academic curriculum and receive
tutoring as needed to prepare for the Connecticut Academic
Performance Test (“CAPT”), passage of which is a
factor in determining all students' eligibility to
graduate. Ex. B-31 (STRIVE policy); Ex. B-39 (CAPT synopsis).
STRIVE uses individualized educational plans
(“IEPs”), functional behavioral analyses, and
behavioral intervention plans designed for each student at a
PPT meeting to develop programming to meet his or her
academic, social, emotional, and behavioral needs. Ex. B-32
(STRIVE student handbook).
faculty at STRIVE each have between 16 and 30 years'
experience working with socially and emotionally troubled
youth. STRIVE's program coordinator, Michael Davis, has a
Master of Arts in Special Education and 16 years'
experience teaching students with severe social and emotional
disabilities. Ex. B-32 (Davis resume). Edward Dillon,
STRIVE's supervisor, has a Master's in Special
Education, has been recognized for excellence in teaching,
and has approximately 30 years' experience educating or
developing programming for socially and emotionally
maladjusted students, including collaborating with
paraprofessionals. B-27 (Dillon resume). STRIVE teacher Jamie
Urso also has a Master's in Special Education and 16
years' teaching special education. B-25 (Urso resume).
Lorri Fitzsimmons, the social worker for STRIVE and ACHIEVE
(discussed below), has a Master's of Social Work and over
20 years' experience providing crisis prevention,
intervention, and treatment. B-28 (Fitzsimmons resume). Neil
Cummings, the transition coordinator for both STRIVE and
ACHIEVE, has over 30 years' experience providing
vocational training and counseling to people with mental
illness or social instability. B-29 (Cummings resume).
September, 20, 2012, a PPT reviewed Student's initial
progress in STRIVE and reviewed an independent
neuropsychological evaluation Parents obtained over the
summer. Ex. B-12 (6/20/2012 PPT record). Based on
that information, the PPT confirmed STRIVE was appropriate
for Student for the 2012-2013 school year. Id.
March 2013, Student successfully took the state-wide CAPT
required of all Connecticut public school students before
graduation. Ex. B-39 (Student's CAPT scores and test
information). Student scored at the
“proficient” level in math and reading and the
“goal” level in science and writing. Id.
A score of proficient “demonstrate[s] an adequate
understanding of the . . . concepts and skills expected of
Connecticut high school students.” Id. A score
of “goal” “demonstrate[s] a strong
understanding of the . . . concepts and inquiry skills
expected of Connecticut high school
22, 2013, at the end of Student's junior year, the Board
held another PPT and determined that, based on Student's
performance in STRIVE, Student should rejoin regular
education classes at Hall High School for his senior year.
B-13 (5/22/2013 PPT record).
reentry into regular education was not successful, and he was
placed back in the STRIVE program after an October 28, 2013
PPT meeting. B-14 (10/28/2013 PPT record). In December 2013,
while in the STRIVE program, Student experienced a severe
violent outburst, punching another student until he broke his
hand, and was suspended for one week. 6/9/2014 Hearing
Transcript (Mother's Testimony) at 140-141.
February 4, 2014, the PPT met to discuss transitional
programming to prepare Student for vocational pursuits. Ex.
B-15 (2/4/2014 PPT record). The PPT determined Student should
attend half-days at STRIVE and spend afternoons with a job
coach. Id. Parents declined the vocational training
proposed with the STRIVE program, and instead requested an
alternative transitional program called Options. Id.
Student was ultimately enrolled in the STRIVE program through
the remainder of his senior year, without afternoon
vocational training. Id.
19, 2014, Student was again hospitalized, for 9 days, due to
a homicidal outburst. 6/9/2014 Hearing Transcript
(Mother's Testimony) at 180-81. The hospital sent the
Board Student's discharge summary, indicating the dates
he was admitted and that he was no longer deemed a danger to
self or others. Ex. B-45. Parents also notified the Board of
Student's hospitalization before he was discharged, and
provided further records of the hospitalization to the Board
at an unspecified later date, when Parents received them from
the hospital. 6/9/2014 Hearing Transcript (Mother's
Testimony) at 181.
2, 2014, a PPT determined that Student had met the course
requirements to graduate, and developed plans to transition
Student to post-secondary education. Ex. B-52 (record of
6/2/2014 PPT). The PPT recommended that Student enroll in
ACHIEVE, a post-secondary program run by the West Hartford
Public Schools for students requiring additional training to
prepare to join the workforce. Id.
teaches daily living skills such as cooking and maintaining
personal finances, and sends students to job sites three to
four days per week to develop employability, interpersonal
skills, and experience. Ex. B-46 (ACHIEVE policy and mission
statement). In students' first year at ACHIEVE, they work
three days per week with full staff support. Id. In
their second year, they work three days per week with staff
support as necessary. Id. In their third year, they
work four days per week with the goal of independence from
on-site staff support. Id. Student's June 2,
2014 PPT indicated that ACHIEVE would provide Student the
opportunity to receive individual or group counseling and a
one-on- one job coach. Ex. B-52 (6/2/2014 PPT record). 82% of
ACHIEVE graduates go on to secure full-time employment,
part-time employment, or to take college courses. Ex. B-49
(ACHIEVE graduate data).
employs a small staff with 14 to 30 years' experience
working with students with emotional and social needs. Beth
Pettinelli, who teaches at ACHIEVE, develops programming,
trains support staff, serves as a job coach, and evaluates
students, has a Master's in Special Education and has
worked at ACHIEVE since 1998. Ex. B-26 (Pettinelli resume).
ACHIEVE employs two paraprofessionals who have worked with
ACHIEVE for 14 years and 25 years, respectively. 7/7/2014
Hearing Transcript (Pettinelli testimony) at 64. Ms.
Fitzsimmons and Mr. Cummings, STRIVE's social worker and
transition coordinator, also work with ACHIEVE students. Exs.
B-28 (Fitzsimmons resume) and B-29 (Cummings resume).
expressed concern that ACHIEVE would not be sufficiently
individualized for Student, and that ACHIEVE staff would not
be sufficiently equipped to meet Student's social and
emotional needs. 6/9/2014 Hearing Transcript (Mother's
Testimony) at 173-74. Parents instead requested Student be
placed at Options, a private special education program
approved by the state of Connecticut. Id. at 175;
Ex. B-52 (6/2/2014 PPT record).
“goal is to improve students' academic skills for
completion of high school graduation requirements and to
increase their competitive abilities for employment,
independent living, and post-secondary education”
through “one-to-one, guided programs.” Ex. P-43
(Options brochure). Scott Wells, Options' Owner and
Director, has a Masters in Counseling Psychology and 22 years
of experience providing transitional training to special
education students, including three years with West Hartford
Public Schools. Ex. P-42 (Wells resume). Options professes
its teachers and counselors “have extensive experience
in a range of educational and vocational fields.” Ex.
P-43 (Options brochure).
ultimately rejected the PPT's plan to place Student in
ACHIEVE rather than Options. Ex. B-52 (6/2/2014 PPT record).
Parents also requested two years of compensatory education at
the June 2, 2014 PPT, which they attended with legal counsel.
Id. The hearing in this matter, which Parents
requested on March 24, 2014, took place over seven days from
June 9, 2014 through August 26, 2014. [Dkt. No. 1
(Complaint), Ex. 1 (Hearing Officer's Decision)
(“HO Decision”) at 2].
move for this Court to overrule the final decision of the Due
Process Hearing Officer and find the Board in violation of 20
U.S.C. § 1400 (“IDEA”) and regulations
thereunder. Mot. at 1; SAC at 45. IDEA
“‘represents an ambitious federal effort' to
ensure that all children are given access to a public
education regardless of any disabilities they may
suffer.” A.S. v. Trumbull Bd. of Educ., 414
F.Supp.2d 152, 169 (D. Conn. 2006) (quoting Bd. of Educ.
v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 179 (1982)). Under IDEA, states
receive federal funding to “develop educational plans
that are ‘reasonably calculated' to ensure that all
children with disabilities receive a FAPE.”
Id. at 169. “A party dissatisfied with a
proposed education plan may challenge it in an administrative
hearing, in which the [challenging] party bears the burden of
proving the plan to be inadequate.” Id.
party is dissatisfied with the findings and decision of the
administrative hearing officer, the party may bring a civil
action in “any State court of competent jurisdiction or
in a district court of the United States without regard to
the amount in controversy.” Rowley, 458 U.S.
176 at 204-05 (quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1415). The
civil action may concern “any matter relating to the
identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the
child, or the provision of a free appropriate public
education to such child.” Id. at 204-05
(quoting 20 U.S.C. § 1415). The reviewing court
“shall receive the record of the [state] administrative
proceedings, shall hear additional evidence at the request of
a party, and basing its decision on the preponderance of the
evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is
appropriate.” Id; see also Hardison v. Bd.
of Educ. of Oneonta City Sch. Dist., 773 F.3d 372, 386
(2d Cir. 2014) (“The district court must engage in an
independent review of the administrative record and make a
determination based on a preponderance of the
reviewing administrative decisions under IDEA must determine
whether they are “reasoned and supported by the
record.” Galiardo v. Arlington Cent. Sch.
Dist., 489 F.3d 105, 114 (2d Cir. 2007). Courts apply a
“preponderance of the evidence” standard to the
inquiry. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii); Grim v.
Rhinebeck Cent. Sch. Dist., 346 F.3d 377, 380 (2d Cir.
2003). The Court's review should be “independent,
but deferential [to the] hearing officer's
decision.” A.E. v. Westport Bd. of Educ., 463
F.Supp.2d 208, 215 (D. Conn. 2006). Courts determine how much
weight to give an administrative decision under IDEA based on
the “quality and thoroughness of the reasoning, the
type of determination under review, and whether the decision
is based on the administrative body's familiarity with
the evidence and the witnesses.” Haridson, 773
F.3d at 386; see also P. ex rel Mr. & Mrs. P. v.
Newington Bd. of Educ., 546 F.3d 111, 118 (2d Cir.
the administrative ruling hinges on a question of education
policy, the Court must show “substantial
deference.” A.E., 463 F.Supp.2d at 215.
“The Supreme Court has cautioned that courts should not
substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for
those of the school authorities which they review.”
Id. Courts are to be “mindful that the
judiciary generally lacks the specialized knowledge and
experience necessary to resolve persistent and difficult
questions of educational policy.” Cerra v. Pawling
Central School District, 427 F.3d 186, 192 (2d Cir.
2005); see also Hardison, 773 F.3d at 386.
“a hearing officer's interpretations of statutes or
the federal constitution are afforded no deference.”
Trumbull Bd., 414 F.Supp.2d at 173 (quoting
Lillbask ex rel. Mauclaire v. Conn. Dept. of Educ.,
397 F.3d 77, 82 (2d Cir. 2005)).
the burden of proof in an IDEA context differs from that of a
traditional summary judgment motion:
Courts that decide summary judgment motions on IDEA appeals
are not dealing with summary judgment in its traditional
setting. Summary judgment in IDEA actions is the most
pragmatic procedural mechanism for resolving IDEA actions.
When deciding a summary judgment motion in the IDEA context,
a court's inquiry is not directed to discerning whether
there are disputed issues of fact, but rather whether the
administrative record, together with any additional evidence,
establishes that there has been compliance with IDEA's
processes and that the child's educational needs have
been appropriately addressed. Therefore, it matters not, in
the context, who initiates the motion.
Westport Bd. of Educ., 463 F.Supp. at 214-15.
Therefore, in reviewing the claims the Court is not focusing
on the presence or absence of issues of material fact, but
instead contemplates whether the record establishes that the
hearing officer's ...