Ojai Unified School Dist. v. Jackson

Decision Date15 September 1993
Docket NumberNo. 91-56361,91-56361
Citation4 F.3d 1467
Parties85 Ed. Law Rep. 724 OJAI UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT; Ventura County Superintendent of Schools, Plaintiffs-Appellees, v. Bion JACKSON, a minor; Elizabeth Jackson; Richard W. Jackson, Defendants-Appellants, California Special Education Hearing Office, Raymond C. Brown; California State Dept. of Education; Bill Honig; State Superintendent of Public Instruction; State of California, Defendants.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Ninth Circuit

Sharon A. Watt, Filarsky & Watt, Ventura, CA, for plaintiffs-appellees.

David R. Ellison, Ellison, Hinkle & Bayer, Ventura, CA, for defendants-appellants.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Central District of California.

Before: CANBY, BOOCHEVER and THOMPSON, Circuit Judges.

CANBY, Circuit Judge.

This appeal involves a dispute over the appropriate educational placement for Bion Jackson under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. Sec. 1400 et seq. 1 The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the Ojai Unified School District ("School District") and the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools ("Superintendent") (collectively "the school officials"). In so doing, the district court overruled an administrative hearing officer's decision that required Bion to be placed in a private school at public expense. We reverse and remand.

I. STATUTORY FRAMEWORK

Because this appeal requires us to interpret a complex web of federal and state statutes and regulations, a brief summary of the legal framework is necessary. The IDEA provides federal funds to assist state and local agencies in educating children with disabilities, but conditions such funding on compliance with certain goals and procedures. 20 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1412 (West 1990 & Supp.1993); Board of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 179-80, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 3037, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982) (describing evolution and major provisions of the act). The IDEA's primary purpose is "to assure that all children with disabilities have available to them ... a free appropriate public education which emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs[.]" 20 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1400(c) (West Supp.1993). This purpose is achieved through the development of an individualized education program ("IEP") for each child with a disability. 20 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1401(a)(18)(D) (West 1990). The IEP is crafted annually by a team that includes a representative of the local educational agency, the child's teacher and parents, and, in appropriate cases, the child. 20 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1414(a)(5) (West Supp.1993); 34 C.F.R. Sec. 300.343(d) (1992). The IEP document must contain: information regarding the child's present levels of performance; a statement of annual goals and short-term instructional objectives; a statement of the specific educational services to be provided and the extent to which the child can participate in regular educational programs; and objective criteria for measuring the student's progress. 20 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1401(a)(20) (West Supp.1993); 34 C.F.R. Sec. 300.346 (1992).

In addition to these substantive provisions, the IDEA contains numerous procedural safeguards. In particular, the IDEA requires that the parents or guardians of a disabled child be notified of any proposed change in "the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to the child," and that they be permitted to bring a complaint about "any matter relating to" such evaluation and educational placement. 20 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1415(b)(1)(C)-(E) (West 1990). When a complaint is made, the child's parents are entitled to "an impartial due process hearing" conducted either by the state or local educational agency, or an intermediate educational unit, as determined by state law. 20 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1415(b)(2) (West 1990). In California, the hearing is "conducted by a person knowledgeable in the laws governing special education and administrative hearings[.]" Cal.Education Code Sec. 56505(c) (West 1989 & Supp.1993). After the administrative hearing officer renders a decision, "[a]ny party aggrieved by the findings and decision" has the right to bring a civil action in state or federal court. 20 U.S.C.A. Sec. 1415(e)(2) (West 1990).

II. FACTUAL & PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

At his birth on February 12, 1979, Bion Jackson suffered from rubella syndrome, which left him deaf and blind. Bion also was afflicted with other health problems; he remained hospitalized for the first two years of his life and spent his third year in a respite facility, where his mobility was extremely limited. As a result of these physical problems, Bion has been developmentally disabled since infancy. In 1982, Bion was adopted by Elizabeth and Richard Jackson, who live in Ojai, California. In June 1982, Mrs. Jackson met with school officials to develop an initial IEP for Bion, and he subsequently was enrolled in a day program for severely disabled students at the Boswell School, a public school located in Ventura County. Bion remained a student in the Boswell School's day program until 1989.

In April 1989, school officials notified Mrs. Jackson that the Boswell School would close at the end of the school year, and that, for the 1989-1990 school year, Bion would be reassigned to a class for disabled students at the Penfield School, another public school in Ventura County. On May 31, 1989, the Jacksons met with school officials to develop an annual IEP for Bion, and the School District reiterated its intention to place Bion in the special day class at the Penfield School. 2 The Jacksons, however, refused to send Bion to Penfield and requested instead that he be placed in a private school, at the School District's expense. 3 When school officials opposed this request, the Jacksons sought mediation to determine whether the Penfield School was an appropriate placement for Bion. In September 1989, the parties submitted their dispute to a mediator but could not resolve it. Instead, as a result of the mediation, they determined that an administrative hearing was necessary and framed the issues as follows:

1. Has the Ojai Unified School District offered an appropriate educational program in a safe environment for Bion Jackson?

2. If not, should the District be required to identify a non-public school program which can provide Bion with an appropriate program in a safe environment and to place Bion in that program?

In November 1989, a hearing officer from the California Special Education Hearing Office ("CSEHO") held the first hearing on the case and ordered the California School for the Blind ("CSB") to conduct an independent educational assessment of Bion. The CSB conducted this assessment in January 1990 and reported that:

Bion is lacking in any residual use of both vision and hearing. He is extremely limited in his ability to physically assess the environment. His experiences are limited to what is brought directly to him or what he is directly exposed to. Bion needs activities that are functional and meaningful to his immediate needs and capabilities....

Because of Bion's sensory losses, tactual and kinesthetic communication appear to be the only modes of communication that have meaning to Bion. Since educators or caregivers are required to be in physical contact, one-to-one teaching should be highly stressed. This approach could be best implemented within a program specifically designed for deaf/blind students.

The CSB assessment, however, did not lead to a resolution of the parties' dispute over whether the Penfield School was an appropriate placement for Bion. Therefore, in April and June of 1990, Raymond C. Brown, a hearing officer for the CSEHO, held additional hearings to answer the questions engendered by the mediation. In an order issued on August 14, 1990, the hearing officer found that the Penfield School was not an appropriate placement for Bion within the meaning of the IDEA. During the hearings, Mrs. Jackson had requested that Bion be placed at the Foundation for the Junior Blind ("FJB"), a private school in Los Angeles. The evidence, however, was not sufficient to allow a determination whether the FJB would be an appropriate placement. The hearing officer therefore stated that he would retain jurisdiction over the case until Bion was placed in a nonpublic school, and gave the School District and the Superintendent forty-five days "to identify a state certified nonpublic school which can provide Bion with an appropriate program in a safe environment and to place Bion in that school."

On September 24, 1990, Marty Babayco, the School District's Director of Special Education, wrote to the hearing officer and reported that he had contacted several state experts, all of whom had recommended the FJB as the only nonpublic school that could serve Bion's needs. As of September 1990, however, the FJB neither had any openings in its residential program nor expected to have any during the 1990-1991 school year. Babayco further stated that he had been unable to locate any other nonpublic school that had a program suited to Bion's needs.

On November 1 and December 18, 1990, the hearing officer held two additional hearings, via telephone, to seek a resolution of this dilemma. During the first telephone hearing, the parties discussed several placements for Bion that might comply with the hearing officer's prior decision, including a day program at the FJB. The Jacksons stated that Bion's grandparents, who live approximately twenty miles from the FJB, had offered to house Bion and his caretaker if Bion were enrolled in the FJB day program. The hearing officer requested that the Jacksons present him with additional information regarding the costs associated with this option, and the parties agreed to convene another telephone hearing after the...

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