372 F.3d 674 (4th Cir. 2004), 03-1181, AW ex rel. Wilson v. Fairfax County School Bd.

Docket Nº:03-1181.
Citation:372 F.3d 674
Party Name:AW, [1] by his parents, Debra D. WILSON and Christopher D. Wilson, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. FAIRFAX COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, Defendant-Appellee.
Case Date:June 24, 2004
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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Page 674

372 F.3d 674 (4th Cir. 2004)

AW, 1 by his parents, Debra D. WILSON and Christopher D. Wilson, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

FAIRFAX COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD, Defendant-Appellee.

No. 03-1181.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

June 24, 2004

Argued: Jan. 22, 2004.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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ARGUED:

Hunter Craycroft Harrison, Jr., McLean, Virginia, for Appellant. John Francis Cafferky, Blankingship & Keith, Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellee.

ON BRIEF:

Jennifer L. Redmond, Blankingship & Keith, Fairfax, Virginia; Thomas J. Cawley, Hunton & Williams, McLean, Virginia, for Appellee.

Before MOTZ, KING, and DUNCAN, Circuit Judges.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge DUNCAN wrote the opinion, in which Judge MOTZ and Judge KING joined.

OPINION

DUNCAN, Circuit Judge:

AW, a disabled student in Fairfax County, Virginia, appeals the district court's judgment in favor of the Fairfax County School Board ("FCSB") in his suit under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400-1487 (West 2000 & Supp.2003) ("the IDEA"). In his complaint, AW asserted that the FCSB improperly refused to allow him to enroll at his preferred junior high school after a pattern of misbehavior in the preceding school year resulted in his mid-year transfer to an elementary school that sent its students on to a different junior high school. Specifically, AW alleged that the FCSB's transfer decision violated the procedural and substantive protections afforded him under the IDEA, including its "stay-put" provision requiring that the student's "educational placement" not change while disciplinary proceedings are pending. Because we conclude that the term "educational placement" as used in the stay-put provision refers to the overall educational environment rather than the precise location in which the disabled student is educated, we affirm.

I.

In March 2002, AW was a sixth-grade student assigned to the "gifted and talented" program (the "GT program") at his elementary school. During the prior school year, a committee at AW's school concluded that AW was eligible to receive special education assistance under the IDEA as a student with an emotional disability. That determination resulted in the formulation of an Individualized Educational Program ("IEP") for AW that devoted one hour of each school week to specialized education intended to alleviate AW's "difficulty maintaining focus and completing academic tasks as required" and avoidance of "many tasks, especially when they involve writing." J.A. 135. AW successfully completed the remainder of his fifth-grade year, and his IEP was revised the following year in accordance with IDEA procedure.

As a sixth-grader, AW began exhibiting behavior problems he had not displayed during the first year of his IDEA program. These disciplinary issues culminated in a March 2002 incident in which AW persuaded another student to place a threatening note in the computer file of a student that AW disliked.2 In the ensuing inquiry, AW admitted that his intent was to scare the targeted student away from school. Based on his admission and past behavioral problems, school administrators suspended AW

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from school for two school weeks and initiated proceedings to expel AW.

As required by the IDEA, school officials convened a Manifestation Determination Review ("MDR") committee in order to determine the extent to which AW could be disciplined. Under the IDEA, a disabled student may not be disciplined by his school unless an MDR committee concludes that the student's IEP was appropriate relative to his qualifying disability and that the student's disability did not inhibit his capacity either to appreciate that his behavior was inappropriate or to conform his behavior to expectations. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k)(4) (2000). On the ninth day of AW's suspension, the MDR committee concluded that AW's IEP appropriately compensated for his emotional disability and that AW's disability did not prevent him from either understanding that his actions violated school rules or behaving appropriately. This finding opened the door for the FCSB to discipline AW as it would any other student. See 20 U.S.C. § 1415(k)(5) (2000). The following day, however, a FCSB administrator rejected the expulsion recommendation from the administrators of AW's school and directed instead that AW be transferred to the GT program at another FCSB elementary school for the remainder of the school year. It is undisputed that AW would continue to receive the one hour per week of special education at this new location.

Despite the transfer determination, AW returned to his original school at the conclusion of his suspension to complete the final week of school before spring break. During this week, AW continued to receive GT program course work but was separated from his class and assigned instead to an empty classroom. As the week drew to a close, AW's parents invoked their right under the due process procedures of the IDEA to a review of the MDR determination. The appointed due process review officer ("DPR Officer") issued a pre-hearing decision staying the FCSB administrator's transfer decision, and AW returned to his original school following spring break.

At the April 17, 2002 hearing regarding the MDR committee's findings, AW's psychologist testified that AW had Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD") and Oppositional Defiance Disorder ("ODD"). AW's psychologist opined that AW's IEP failed to adequately compensate for ODD and that AW's combination of conditions figured prominently in the behavior for which he was disciplined. Nevertheless, the DPR Officer concluded that the MDR committee's conclusion was sound and that the FCSB could transfer AW to a nearby school with a comparable GT program, based in part on his conclusion that the evidence did not support the findings of AW's psychologist. The DPR Officer's order released the FCSB to transfer AW to another elementary school located approximately five miles away from AW's original school, and AW completed his sixth-grade year at that school.

Following their unsuccessful attempts to enroll AW at the junior high he would likely have attended but for his transfer, AW's parents filed the complaint in this case on AW's behalf on August 16, 2002. The complaint alleged that the FCSB violated the IDEA's "stay-put" provision by transferring AW despite the ongoing challenge to the MDR committee's determination under the IDEA's review procedures, and that the MDR committee erred in concluding that AW could be disciplined as any other student. The district court granted judgment in favor of the FCSB, and AW timely appealed.

II.

This Court reviews the district court's interpretation of the IDEA de novo. Wagner v. Bd. of Educ., 335 F.3d 297, 301 (4th Cir. 2003).

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When a district court reviews a state administrative decision under the IDEA, that court must make an "independent decision based on a preponderance of the evidence." Doyle v. Arlington County Sch. Bd., 953 F.2d 100, 103 (4th Cir. 1991). In doing so, however, the court must accord the administrative findings "due weight," as "the primary responsibility for formulating the education to be accorded a handicapped child, and for choosing the educational method most suitable to the child's needs, was left by the IDEA to state and local educational agencies in cooperation with the parents or guardian of the child." Springer v. Fairfax County Sch. Bd., 134 F.3d 659, 663 (4th Cir. 1998) (internal quotation marks and alterations omitted).

The IDEA confers upon disabled students substantive and procedural rights that ensure the child's right to "public education in participating States." Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 310, 108 S.Ct. 592, 98 L.Ed.2d 686 (1988). Substantively, the IDEA requires participating states to provide all disabled children with a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") as a condition to the receipt of federal funds. See 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400(d)(1)(A), 1412(a)(1) (2000).3 As an adjunct to this requirement, school officials must create an IEP for each qualifying child to ensure that the school district is properly discharging this obligation with respect to each disabled student. See 20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(2000). Procedurally, the IDEA "guarantee[s] parents both an opportunity for meaningful input into all decisions affecting their child's education and the right to seek review of any decisions they think inappropriate." Honig, 484 U.S. at 311-12, 108 S.Ct. 592. This includes the "opportunity to present complaints with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child." 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)(2000)(emphasis added).4

AW presents two issues in this appeal. First, AW asserts that his mid-year transfer by the FCSB violates the "stay-put" provision of the IDEA, 20 U.S.C. § 1415(j)(2000), as the due process review guaranteed to AW's parents under the IDEA was still proceeding. Second, AW challenges the substantive determination by the MDR committee that allowed the FCSB to discipline AW in the same manner as any non-disabled student. We consider each issue in turn.

III.

The first issue raised by AW in this appeal is whether the FCSB's decision to transfer him mid-year to the GT program at another school violated the "stay-put" provision of the IDEA. This provision mandates that "during the pendency of any proceedings conducted pursuant to this section, ... the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement of such child, " absent the consent of school officials and the parents. Id. (emphasis added). AW argues that the term "educational placement" encompasses not simply the particular...

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