471 U.S. 359 (1985), 84-433, School Committee of the Town of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts

Docket Nº:No. 84-433.
Citation:471 U.S. 359, 105 S.Ct. 1996, 85 L.Ed.2d 385, 53 U.S.L.W. 4509
Party Name:School Committee of the Town of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts
Case Date:April 29, 1985
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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471 U.S. 359 (1985)

105 S.Ct. 1996, 85 L.Ed.2d 385, 53 U.S.L.W. 4509

School Committee of the Town of Burlington

v.

Department of Education of Massachusetts

No. 84-433.

United States Supreme Court

April 29, 1985

Argued March 26, 1985

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE

FIRST CIRCUIT

Syllabus

The Education of the Handicapped Act requires participating state and local educational agencies to assure that handicapped children and their parents are guaranteed procedural safeguards with respect to the provision of free appropriate public education for such children. These procedures include the parents' right to participate in the development of an "individualized education program" (IEP) for the child and to challenge in administrative and court proceedings a proposed IEP with which they disagree. With respect to judicial review, the Act in 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2) authorizes the reviewing court to "grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate." Section 1415(e)(3) provides that, during the pendency of any review proceedings, unless the state or local educational agency and the parents otherwise agree, "the child shall remain in the then current educational placement of such child." Respondent father of a handicapped child rejected petitioner town's proposed IEP for the 1979-1980 school year calling for placement of the child in a certain public school, and sought review by respondent Massachusetts Department of Education's Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA). Meanwhile, the father, at his own expense, enrolled the child in a state-approved private school for special education. The BSEA thereafter decided that the town's proposed IEP was inappropriate, and that the private school was better suited for the child's educational needs, and ordered the town to pay the child's expenses at the private school for the 1979-1980 school year. The town then sought review in Federal District Court. Ultimately, after the town in the meantime had agreed to pay for the child's private school placement for the 1980-1981 school year but refused to reimburse the father for the 1979-1980 school year as ordered by the BSEA, the court overturned the BSEA's decision, holding that the appropriate 1979-1980 placement was the one proposed in the IEP, and that the town was not responsible for the costs at the private school for the 1979-1980 through 1981-1982 school years. The Court of Appeals, remanding, held that the father's unilateral change of the child's placement during the pendency of the

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administrative proceedings would not be a bar to reimbursement if such change were held to be appropriate.

Held:

[105 S.Ct. 1998] 1. The grant of authority to a reviewing court under § 1415(e)(2) includes the power to order school authorities to reimburse parents for their expenditures on private special education for a child if the court ultimately determines that such placement, rather than a proposed IEP, is proper under the Act. The ordinary meaning of the language in § 1415(e)(2) directing the court to "grant such relief as [it] determines is appropriate" confers broad discretion on the court. To deny such reimbursement would mean that the child's right to a free appropriate public education, the parents' right to participate fully in developing a proper IEP, and all of the procedural safeguards of the Act would be less than complete. Pp. 369-371.

2. A parental violation of § 1415(e)(3) by changing the "then current educational placement" of their child during the pendency of proceedings to review a challenged proposed IEP does not constitute a waiver of the parents' right to reimbursement for expenses of the private placement. Otherwise, the parents would be forced to leave the child in what may turn out to be an inappropriate educational placement or to obtain the appropriate placement only by sacrificing any claim for reimbursement. But if the courts ultimately determine that the proposed IEP was appropriate, the parents would be barred from obtaining reimbursement for any interim period in which their child's placement violated § 1415(e)(3). Pp. 371-374.

736 F.2d 773, affirmed. REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

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REHNQUIST, J., lead opinion

JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Education of the Handicapped Act (Act), 84 Stat. 175, as amended, 20 U.S.C. § 1401 et seq., requires participating state and local educational agencies "to assure that handicapped children and their parents or guardians are guaranteed procedural safeguards with respect to the provision of free appropriate public education" to such handicapped children. § 1415(a). These procedures include the right of the parents to participate in the development of an "individualized education program" (IEP) for the child and to challenge in administrative and court proceedings a proposed IEP with which they disagree. §§ 1401 (19), 1415(b), (d), (e). Where, as in the present case, review of a contested IEP takes years to run its course -- years critical to the child's development -- important practical questions arise concerning interim placement of the child and financial responsibility for that placement. This case requires us to address some of those questions.

Michael Panico, the son of respondent Robert Panico, was a first grader in the public school system of petitioner Town of Burlington, Mass., when he began experiencing serious difficulties in school. It later became evident that he had "specific learning disabilities," and thus was "handicapped" within the meaning of the Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1401(1). This entitled him to receive at public expense specially designed instruction to meet his unique needs, as well as related transportation. §§ 1401(16), 1401(17). The negotiations and other proceedings between the Town and the Panicos, thus far spanning more than eight years, are too involved to relate in full detail; the following are the parts relevant to the issues on which we granted certiorari.

In the spring of 1979, Michael attended the third grade of the Memorial School, a public school in Burlington, Mass., under an IEP calling for individual tutoring by a reading specialist for one hour a day and individual and group counselling. Michael's continued poor performance and the fact that

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Memorial School was not equipped to handle his needs led to much discussion between his parents and Town school officials about his difficulties and [105 S.Ct. 1999] his future schooling. Apparently the course of these discussions did not run smoothly; the upshot was that the Panicos and the Town agreed that Michael was generally of above average to superior intelligence, but had special educational needs calling for a placement in a school other than Memorial. They disagreed over the source and exact nature of Michael's learning difficulties, the Town believing the source to be emotional and the parents believing it to be neurological.

In late June, the Town presented the Panicos with a proposed IEP for Michael for the 1979-1980 academic year. It called for placing Michael in a highly structured class of six children with special academic and social needs, located at another Town public school, the Pine Glen School. On July 3, Michael's father rejected the proposed IEP and sought review under § 1415(b)(2) by respondent Massachusetts Department of Education's Bureau of Special...

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