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A Tennessee school district has been ordered to pay $103,274 to reimburse the family of a student with Down Syndrome for the cost of private school tuition and tutoring.

The District Court ruling follows a decision by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals that the Hamilton County Department of Education violated now-15-year-old Luka Hyde’s rights to education in the least restrictive environment in 2013, when it sought to move him from a general education classroom at Normal Park Elementary School in Chattanooga to a comprehensive development classroom at nearby Red Bank Elementary.

IDEA and the “Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)” Requirement

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to students with disabilities by developing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for every child.

The law also requires the school to provide an education in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). In practice, LRE means that students with IEPs must be educated with nondisabled peers and accessing the general education curriculum as much as possible.

Background on the Hyde Decision

Luka Hyde attended Normal Park Elementary from 2009-2013. He was placed in a general education classroom with non-disabled peers and received supports in the classroom. This included one-on-one instruction outside of class, the presence of a special education teacher in the regular classroom, occupational therapy, speech therapy and a full-time aide.

By second grade, Luka’s school team reported that he was struggling to meet his IEP goals and had failed to keep pace with his grade-level peers. In addition, it was reported by school staff that his behavior had become disruptive to teachers and fellow students in the class. As a result, in 2013, his IEP team decided to move him to a Comprehensive Development Classroom (CDC) at Red Bank Elementary.

However, Luka’s parents felt very strongly that he should remain in a class with typically developing peers and enrolled him in a private Montessori school. They filed a complaint with the school district and sought reimbursement for the private school tuition.

The 6th Circuit ultimately ruled in favor of the Hyde family for the following reasons:

  • The family was able to prove that the school was not as transparent as they should have been about Luka’s educational options.
  • The school did not recommend keeping Luka at his resident school. Instead they moved him to a separate school placement, away from his friends and sibling.
  • The separate public school recommended by the district was not an acceptable option for the parents, so they chose to send him to a private school.

When the Hydes won the case, the school district was ordered to reimburse the family for all 5 years of private school tuition.

Implications of the Hyde Decision

The Hyde decision explicitly states that “…a child need NOT master general education curriculum for mainstreaming to remain a viable option. Rather, the appropriate yardstick is whether the child, with appropriate supplemental aids and services, can make progress toward the IEP goals in the regular education setting” (p. 13, Luka Hyde vs. Hamilton Co. Dept of Education – Sixth Circuit Opinion and Judgment, 2018). This is a 6th Circuit decision and not a Supreme Court decision, therefore, it can only be used as precedent in the states of Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee. However, it may be used as persuasive argument in cases arising from other states.

The Hyde decision acknowledges the idea that IEP goals can be the driving force behind an inclusive and collaborative mindset. This idea is in alignment with the mission and vision of SMARTER Steps. In education, we talk a lot about LRE. It is important to remember that LRE is a process – one that should be individualized per child and not merely a generic, physical location within a school or district. In contrast, “inclusion” is a mindset rather than a place. Mere presence in a location does not equate to being fully included in the learning moment. Inclusion can take many shapes and forms and is focused on considering the best interest of the child related to what everyone else is doing.

The Hyde decision supports evidence that the goals are the HEART of a student’s IEP. If we think of it as a logical process, it would look like this:

 

The student’s IEP goals should drive the services; the services should drive the minutes; and the minutes should drive the placement. SMARTER Steps consultants and resources help IEP teams focus on collaborative goal development related to the student’s strengths and needs. Well-designed IEP goals that are legally compliant can help students master the curriculum in the least restrictive environment. All students deserve educational experiences that meet their individual needs and yield optimal outcomes.

If you would like to learn more about using our SMARTER Steps process to create goals with an inclusive mindset, check out the SMARTER Goal make-over blog from Inclusion Evolution: https://www.inclusionevolution.com/making-smarter-iep-goals-inclusive-mindset/

If you would like more information on developing SMARTER IEP goals contact us to learn more.

Kelly Ott, MEd, MHS, CCC-SLP  and Lara Wakefield, PhD, CCC-SLP
S.M.A.R.T.E.R. Steps resources and support services on TPT and at smartersteps.com
[email protected]

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