Sixth Circuit denies IDEA reimbursement for autistic student’s parents

On August 18, 2014, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals rendered a decision in N.W. v. Boone County Board of Education, which denied IDEA reimbursement to the parents of an autistic child. The parents filed the action under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) arguing that the school district had failed to offer a “free appropriate public education” (“FAPE”) to their child, as required by IDEA.

This case involved an autistic student who had been diagnosed with apraxia. Under the student’s Individual Educational Program (“IEP”) the student had been placed at St. Rita’s School for the Deaf. However, the parents became dissatisfied with St. Rita’s program, and unilaterally removed their son and placed him in a private school in Cincinnati without the local school district’s consent.
After unilaterally placing their son in a new private school, the parents sought reimbursement of tuition and transportation costs from the school district. The school district, however, maintained that it could provide the student with FAPE. The parties attempted to mediate the placement issue for three years, without success, and eventually litigation ensued at the administrative level, and then before the federal courts.

The parents filed suit in the District Court offering two main arguments for reimbursement: (1) that the school district’s plan failed to provide a FAPE; and (2) IDEA’s “Stay-Put” provision permitted the student to continue attending the private school and required the school district to reimburse the parents for tuition and transportation expenses at such school until the dispute was resolved.

Despite finding that the parents failed to show that the school district denied their son a FAPE and that the parents unilaterally withdrew their child from the district’s schools, the court ordered the school district to reimburse the parents for the tuition and transportation costs incurred by attending the private school. The school district appealed the decision to the Sixth Circuit, which reversed the decision.

On appeal, the Sixth Circuit held that the IDEA does not permit the courts to order reimbursement absent a finding that a school district failed to offer a FAPE. The Sixth Circuit relied on the district court’s determination that the parents had failed to prove the school district did not offer a FAPE, which the parents did not appeal to the Sixth Circuit.

Moreover, the Sixth Circuit ruled that the IDEA’s “Stay-Put” provision did not apply to the student. The Sixth Circuit stated that in order to qualify for stay-put protection and reimbursement, the school district’s approval is necessary for the student to be “placed” at a school. Thus, the Sixth Circuit determined that the student had not be “placed” at the private school because his parents unilaterally enrolled him at the private school, without the school district’s approval.

Under the IDEA, a FAPE must be provided to all disabled children who are 2 to 21 years of age. A FAPE is to be provided at the public’s expense and in conformity with each disabled child’s IEP. According to the Sixth Circuit, however, a school district will not be forced to reimburse parents for expenses incurred for private schooling when the parents unilaterally enroll their child in private school, without establishing that the school district failed to offer a FAPE to the student.