303 F.3d 523 (4th Cir. 2002), 01-1364, MM ex rel. DM v. School Dist. of Greenville County

Docket Nº:01-1364, 01-1411.
Citation:303 F.3d 523
Party Name:MM, a minor, by and through her parents, DM and EM, and on their own behalf, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. SCHOOL DISTRICT OF GREENVILLE COUNTY, a/k/a Greenville County Public Schools, Defendant-Appellant, and South Carolina State Board of Education, Defendant, The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates; Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabili
Case Date:September 06, 2002
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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Page 523

303 F.3d 523 (4th Cir. 2002)

MM, a minor, by and through her parents, DM and EM, and on their own behalf, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

SCHOOL DISTRICT OF GREENVILLE COUNTY, a/k/a Greenville County Public Schools, Defendant-Appellant,

and

South Carolina State Board of Education, Defendant,

The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates; Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities of South Carolina; Carolina Legal Assistance; North Carolina Special Needs Federation; The North Carolina Governor's Advocacy Council for Persons with Disabilities; Pisgah Legal Services; Maryland Disability Law Center, Amici Curiae.

Page 524

MM, a minor, by and through her parents, DM and EM, and on their own behalf, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

School District of Greenville County, a/k/a Greenville County Public Schools, Defendant-Appellee,

and

South Carolina State Board of Education, Defendant,

The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates; Protection and Advocacy for People with Disabilities of South Carolina; Carolina Legal Assistance; North Carolina Special Needs Federation; The North Carolina Governor's Advocacy Council for Persons with Disabilities; Pisgah Legal Services; Maryland Disability Law Center, Amici Curiae.

Nos. 01-1364, 01-1411.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

September 6, 2002

Argued June 4, 2002.

Page 525

ARGUED: Elizabeth Jones Smith, Clarkson, Walsh, Rheney & Turner, P.A., Greenville, South Carolina, for Appellant. Paul Lawrence Erickson, The Law Firm of Paul L. Erickson, P.A., Asheville, North Carolina, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF: N. Heyward Clarkson III, Clarkson, Walsh, Rheney & Turner, P.A., Greenville, South Carolina, for Appellant. Judith A. Gran, Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Stacey Bawtinhimer, New Bern, North Carolina, for Amici Curiae.

Before KING and GREGORY, Circuit Judges, and BEEZER, Senior Circuit Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, sitting by designation.

Affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded by published opinion. Judge KING wrote the opinion, in which Judge GREGORY and Senior Judge BEEZER joined.

OPINION

KING, Circuit Judge.

The School District of Greenville County, South Carolina ("the District"), has appealed

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the district court's ruling that the 1995-96 Individualized Education Program ("IEP") of student MM1 failed to provide her with a statutorily mandated "free appropriate public education." MM v. Sch. Dist, C/A No.: 3:98-2971-17, Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law (D.S.C. Aug. 17, 2000) (the "Opinion"). MM and her parents have cross-appealed, contending that the district court erred in four respects. As explained below, the 1995-96 IEP complied with the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (the "IDEA"), and we reverse the district court on the District's appeal. On the other hand, the contentions raised by MM and her parents are without merit, and we affirm on the cross-appeal.

I.

This proceeding involves the application and construction of the IDEA, which amended the Education of All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, codified at 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.2 In order to place these appeals in the proper perspective, it is necessary first to review some essential legal principles under which they arise. We will then spell out the factual underpinnings of this dispute.

A.

The IDEA was enacted in 1990 to ensure that all children with disabilities receive a "free appropriate public education" (a "FAPE"), and the IDEA emphasized the special education and related services required to meet the unique needs of such children.3 In return for the receipt of federal education funding, states are required by the IDEA to provide each of their disabled children with a FAPE. Under the IDEA, a FAPE must provide such children with meaningful access to the educational process. Board of Educ, v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 192, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982) ("[I]n seeking to provide . . . access to public education, Congress did not impose upon the States any greater substantive educational standard than would be necessary to make such access meaningful"). That is, a FAPE must be reasonably calculated to confer some educational benefit on a disabled child. Id. at 207, 102 S.Ct. 3034. Such an educational benefit must be provided to a disabled child in the least restrictive and appropriate environment, with the child participating, to the extent possible, in the same activities as non-disabled children. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A).

The IDEA does not, however, require a school district to provide a disabled child with the best possible education. Rowley, 458 U.S. at 192, 102 S.Ct. 3034. And once a FAPE is offered, the school district need

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not offer additional educational services. Matthews v. Davis, 742 F.2d 825, 830 (4th Cir. 1984). That is, while a state "must provide specialized instruction and related services 'sufficient to confer some educational benefit upon the handicapped child,' . . . the Act does not require the 'furnishing of every special service necessary to maximize each handicapped child's potential.' " Hartmann v. Loudoun County Bd. of Educ, 118 F.3d 996, 1001 (4th Cir. 1997) (quoting Rowley, 458 U.S. at 199-200, 102 S.Ct. 3034).

A school district is required by the IDEA to provide an IEP for each disabled child. An appropriate IEP must contain statements concerning a disabled child's level of functioning, set forth measurable annual achievement goals, describe the services to be provided, and establish objective criteria for evaluating the child's progress. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A).4] The IDEA establishes a series of elaborate procedural safeguards "designed to ensure that the parents or guardian of a child with a disability are both notified of decisions affecting their child and given an opportunity to object to these decisions." Gadsby v. Grasmick, 109 F.3d 940, 956 (4th Cir. 1997). The IEP must therefore be prepared by an IEP Team, which consists of a representative of the school district, the child's teacher, the parents or guardian and, where appropriate, the child herself. 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(B).

The IDEA requires that the parents or guardian of a disabled child be notified by the school district of any proposed change to their child's IEP. It also requires that the parents or guardian be permitted to participate in discussions relating to their disabled child's evaluation and education. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b). If the parents or guardian are not satisfied with the IEP, they are entitled to request a due process hearing. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(f). In South Carolina, that hearing is conducted before a local Hearing Officer and is appealable to a state-level Reviewing Officer. 24 S.C.Code Ann. Regs. § 43-243. Any party aggrieved by the findings and decision of a Reviewing Officer may then bring suit in state or federal court. See id. ("Any party aggrieved by the findings and decision . . . shall have the right to bring a civil action . . . in any State court of competent jurisdiction or in a district court of the United States. . . .").

B.

MM recently turned eleven years old. She suffers from two disorders: first, from a disease called myotonic dystrophy,5 and second, from moderate autism.6 She thus

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qualifies as a "child with a disability" under the IDEA. When MM was three years old, she resided with her family in Henderson County, North Carolina. In 1994, the Henderson County school officials evaluated MM under the IDEA for a preschool program, and they developed an IEP for her benefit.7

In the Summer of 1995, just before her fourth birthday, MM moved with her parents to South Carolina, and they sought IDEA services for her from the District. At the District's suggestion, her parents visited two public schools in the Greenville area: the Meyers Center, a five-day-per-week preschool, and the Golden Strip Preschool, a one-day-per-week preschool. The parents then advised the District that they preferred the Golden Strip Preschool, in part because the limited hours afforded them the opportunity to utilize an in-home program for treating MM's autism (denominated as the "Lovaas" system).8

On September 21, 1995, MM's IEP Team, including her parents, met in Greenville. During this meeting, MM's 1995-96 IEP was completed, and her parents accepted and signed the written IEP. This IEP placed MM in the Golden Strip Preschool one day per week, from 9:00 to 11:00 a.m., in a classroom with a four-to-one student-to-teacher ratio. The 1995-96 IEP also provided MM with one-half hour per week of speech therapy, one-half hour per week of physical therapy, and one-half hour per month of occupational therapy. MM's physical therapy took place before preschool hours, but her speech therapy occurred during school hours. The IEP did not, however, provide for Extended School Year Services ("ESY Services") for the Summer of 1996.9 The 1995-96 IEP was then implemented as planned, and MM's parents did not object to it during the school year.

MM made educational progress during 1995-96, and she was then re-evaluated for

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the 1996-97 school year. On May 13, 1996, her IEP Team reconvened and discussed possible IEP placements for MM at both the Sara Collins Elementary School and the Golden Strip Pre-school. The District preferred the Sara Collins placement, which included classroom services from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., five days per week, plus two twenty-five-minute sessions of speech therapy per week, two thirty-minute sessions of physical therapy per week, and one thirty-minute session of occupational therapy per week. The District's proposed 1996-97 IEP (the "Proposed 1996-97 IEP") did not contemplate providing MM...

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