Adam Dayan, Esq.
There are times when you may want to arrange for a classroom observation at your child's school. Let's take the case where you are working with a private psychologist who wants to observe your child in his regular classroom setting in order to develop a complete understanding of your child's academic ability and the way he/she functions in a real-life academic setting. Does the school district have an obligation to allow that kind of observation?
In Appeal No. 11-074, SRO Stephanie Deyoe considered this question. (For those of you having trouble keeping up with yet another SRO change, you are not alone.) The basic facts of this case are that the parents who had a child with autism and ADHD wanted the private psychologist they had hired to conduct a classroom observation at the child's public school. The school had denied the psychologist access, stating that it would cause too much of a disruption and that there was a concern about student confidentiality and safety. The SRO agreed with the IHO who had ruled in favor of the parents. Although a school district may impose certain requirements to ensure confidentiality and safety of the students, it cannot prohibit a private psychologist from entering the school to observe the child when such an observation is meant to assess the child's needs and abilities, and is necessary for a complete evaluation. Although the IDEA does not clearly set out this right, the SRO pointed to letters from the Office of Special Education Programs which support the right to such an observation. The district's informal policy of allowing district personnel to perform observations but preventing private psychologists from doing so was rejected.
A recent federal case from the U.S. District Court of New Jersey, Disability Rights of N.J. v. New Jersey Department of Education, also considered the issue of classroom observations but in a slightly different context. Here, the issue was a class action lawsuit alleging that schools across the state were not in compliance with certain requirements under the IDEA. The court said that under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, during discovery a party has a right to enter onto property, which could include school grounds, so that the requesting party may conduct an inspection, which could include classroom observations. The Court ultimately struck down the request for classroom observations for a number of reasons, including: (a) the defendants in this case were the state-level educational authorities like the NJ Department of Education and the issues of denial of FAPE and least restrictive environment should have been directed against the local school district through the impartial hearing process; (b) the plaintiffs were not sufficiently specific about how the observations were going to be conducted; and (c) even though the judges could have given the plaintiffs some leeway, there would have been an enormous burden on the schools and the plaintiffs' attorneys did not do a good enough job connecting the dots for the judges as to why this was so important. The takeaway message here: if you're going to bring a class action and ask the court to allow discovery that would put extreme demands on the district in terms of time, personnel, and money - you better demonstrate a good reason for doing it.