118 F.3d 245 (5th Cir. 1997), 96-20221, Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School Dist. v. Michael F. by Barry F.

Docket Nº:96-20221.
Citation:118 F.3d 245
Party Name:CYPRESS-FAIRBANKS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. MICHAEL F. b/n/f/ Mr. and Mrs. Barry F., Defendant-Appellant.
Case Date:July 15, 1997
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit
 
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Page 245

118 F.3d 245 (5th Cir. 1997)

CYPRESS-FAIRBANKS INDEPENDENT SCHOOL DISTRICT, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

MICHAEL F. b/n/f/ Mr. and Mrs. Barry F., Defendant-Appellant.

No. 96-20221.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 15, 1997

Page 246

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Janet Little Horton, Christopher Paul Borreca, Bracewell & Patterson, L.L.P., Houston, TX, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

Daniel L. McCall, Houston, TX, for Defendant-Appellant.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.

Before HIGGINBOTHAM, WIENER and DENNIS, Circuit Judges.

WIENER, Circuit Judge:

Defendants-Appellants Michael F., by his next friend and parents, Mr. and Mrs. Barry F., ("Michael's parents") appeal from the final judgment of the district court in favor of Plaintiff-Appellee Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District ("Cy-Fair ISD"). The action arose when Michael's parents, invoking the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 1 sought reimbursement from Cy-Fair ISD for the costs they incurred in placing their disabled child, Michael, in a full-time private residential education and treatment facility. The school district refused Michael's parents' request, and they appealed administratively to the Texas Education Agency ("TEA"), whose hearing officer ordered reimbursement, finding that (1) the educational program crafted for Michael by Cy-Fair ISD was inappropriate under the IDEA, and (2) Michael's placement at a specialized private residential school by his parents was appropriate. After conducting further fact finding, the district court reversed the hearing officer's decision and also awarded costs to the school district. Concluding on the basis of the entire administrative and judicial record that the district court committed no reversible error when it reversed the hearing officer's decision, we affirm the court's decision on reimbursement, but modify in part its award of costs to the school district and affirm that award as modified.

I

BACKGROUND

  1. Statutory Framework of the IDEA

    Being a local educational agency responsible for complying with the IDEA as a condition of the State of Texas' receipt of federal education funding, Cy-Fair ISD must (1) provide each disabled child within its jurisdictional boundaries with a "free appropriate public education" tailored to his unique needs, 2 and (2) assure that such education is offered, to the greatest extent possible, in the educational "mainstream," that is, side by side with non-disabled children, in the least restrictive environment consistent with the disabled student's needs. 3 The "free appropriate public education" that a disabled student is entitled to receive under the IDEA must be tailored to his particular needs by means of an "individual educational program" ("IEP"), a written statement prepared at a meeting attended by a qualified representative of the school district, a teacher, the child's parents or guardians, and, when appropriate, the child himself. 4 In Texas, the persons charged with preparing an IEP are known collectively as an Admissions, Review and Dismissal Committee ("ARD Committee").

    The "free appropriate public education" tailored by an ARD Committee and described in an IEP, however, need not be the best possible one, nor one that will maximize the child's educational potential; rather, it need only be an education that is specifically designed to meet the child's

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    unique needs, supported by services that will permit him "to benefit" from the instruction. 5 In other words, the IDEA guarantees only a "basic floor of opportunity" for every disabled child, consisting of "specialized instruction and related services which are individually designed to provide educational benefit." 6 Nevertheless, the educational benefit to which the Act refers and to which an IEP must be geared cannot be a mere modicum or de minimis; 7 rather, an IEP must be "likely to produce progress, not regression or trivial educational advancement." 8 In short, the educational benefit that an IEP is designed to achieve must be "meaningful." 9

    When a parent or guardian challenges the appropriateness of an IEP crafted by a state or local education agency and the resulting educational placement, a reviewing court's inquiry is generally twofold. It must ask first whether the state or local agency complied with the procedures set forth in the Act, and if so whether "the individualized educational program developed through the Act's procedures [was] reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits?" 10 In those instances when a suitable or "appropriate" public educational placement is not available for a disabled child within a state or local school district, the district must pay the costs of sending the child to an appropriate private institution. 11

    In School Comm. of Town of Burlington, Mass. v. Department of Educ. of Mass., 12 the Supreme Court held that a reviewing court may, in the exercise of the equitable authority granted to it under the IDEA, order public school authorities to reimburse parents or guardians of a disabled child for their expenditures on private schooling when they unilaterally remove the child from public education and place the child in private schooling. But reimbursement may be ordered in such situations only if the parents or guardians establish that (1) an IEP calling for placement in a public school was inappropriate under the IDEA, and (2) the private school placement by the parents was proper under the Act. 13 If the reviewing court determines that the school district's IEP was appropriate, it need not reach the issue of the appropriateness of the private placement by the parents. 14

  2. Particular Facts and Proceedings

    At an early age, Michael F. was diagnosed with, and began to receive medication for, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHA"). Based on this condition, Michael was classified as "other health impaired" and was thus entitled to receive educational services under the IDEA from Cy-Fair ISD after he and his family moved there in the summer of 1992.

    Michael enrolled as a sixth grader at Cy-Fair ISD's Hamilton Intermediate School

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    (Hamilton) for the 1992-93 school year. During this school year, Michael was diagnosed with Tourette's Syndrome ("Tourette's"), a neurological or psychiatric behavior disorder typified by involuntary motor and vocal ticks. Michael's case of Tourette's is manifested by symptoms of (1) hyperactivity and decreased attention, (2) obsessive compulsive behavior, (3) rapid mood swings, and (4) ticks and twitches.

    Acting through an ARD Committee convened in August 1992, Cy-Fair ISD instituted a provisional IEP for Michael's 1992-1993 school year at Hamilton. Under this initial IEP, Michael attended regular classes and had access to a "content mastery class." In October of 1992, the ARD Committee supplemented Michael's IEP with a "behavioral plan," under which Michael's teachers could discipline him with "time-out" and "cooling off" periods when he became agitated, send him to counseling sessions with the assistant principal, or send him to special discipline management classes. Michael's parents approved both the initial IEP and the October behavioral plan.

    Michael's deportment problems ebbed and flowed throughout the 1992-93 school year. During the fall semester, his misbehavior consisted mainly of relatively minor disruptions such as yelling inappropriately on the bus and in class, calling other students and himself gay, touching students on the legs in a sexual way, talking back to his teacher, licking his books and papers in class, one scuffle, and one fight. This behavior landed Michael in the principal's office, detention hall, or discipline management class on numerous occasions and also resulted in several temporary suspensions from the school bus.

    Beginning in January of 1993, however, when Michael was first diagnosed with Tourette's and his medications were juggled in an attempt to reduce the severity of his Tourette's' symptoms, his behavior worsened. Not only did he continue to disrupt class and cause trouble elsewhere in the school environment, but Michael increasingly became involved in fights, and on February 15 and 17--just when a powerful and potentially beneficial drug with strong side effects was being introduced into Michael's medication regimen--his temper flared in two physically violent episodes. As a result of these episodes, Michael was removed from school on an emergency basis and faced possible expulsion until the ARD Committee determined, after receiving reports from Michael's attending psychiatrist and psychologist, that Michael's misbehavior was directly related to his disability. Agreeing with the recommendation of Michael's psychiatrist, the ARD Committee assigned Michael to a homebound placement for approximately six weeks so that his doctors could complete medication trials and stabilize his medical treatment, after which the Committee could reevaluate Michael's IEP.

    Just before Michael's outburst of physically violent behavior in mid-February, however, the ARD Committee had resolved that Michael's needs would be better addressed with a more consistent behavioral structure throughout the day. It had, therefore, placed him in a self-contained, adaptive behavior classroom for three subjects (English/Language Arts, Math, and Social Studies), 15 while leaving him in regular education classes for Science and Physical Education ("P.E.") The ARD Committee also supplemented Michael's program by providing him with a social behavior curriculum in his adaptive behavior classes, psychological counseling services, and a discipline contingency plan.

    When Michael returned to Hamilton on...

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