SRO Reverses Impartial Hearing Officer's Award Of Tuition Reimbursement For Bay Ridge Prep
In SRO 11-015, the school district appealed an impartial hearing officer's decision to award tuition reimbursement to parents who had placed their son at Bay Ridge Preparatory School. There was no issue about the appropriateness of Bay Ridge Prep. The child had been placed in the school's Bridge program which provided the extra support that he needed in areas like reading, comprehension, writing, math, and organization, and addressed his issues with anxiety - the district did not argue that Bay Ridge Prep was inappropriate. Instead the district argued that (a) it had offered the student an appropriate education, and (b) the parent's did not deserve to win because of their conduct. Ultimately, it was the second of these arguments that the SRO decided to hang his hat on.
Under the law, in certain situations you have to notify the school district that you are planning to place your child in a private school and seek reimbursement for the tuition. The law says that reimbursement may be reduced or denied if parents do not provide such notice and explain their concerns and why they are rejecting the district's program. Because the law says "reduced or denied" a hearing officer or review officer has discretion about whether to throw out the case completely or simply reduce the parent's award - here the SRO used his discretion to throw out the case completely. His reasoning was that the parents failed to identify the nature of their concerns about the IEP and/or the recommended school placement prior to enrolling their child in the private school. What the letter did say, albeit a bit vaguely, was that the recommended public school placement could not provide appropriate grouping based on student ability or meet the child's specific individualized needs. The letter said that the nature of the issues with the offered program/placement would be explained in the impartial hearing request.
The difficulty with this case is that the SRO agreed that the IEP created by the CSE was inappropriate and that Bay Ridge Prep was appropriate. The IEP goals failed to address several of the child's core areas of difficulty. The SRO agreed that Bay Ridge Prep was an appropriate program capable of addressing these needs. So the issue was just how to come down in this case...and the SRO came down against the parent despite evidence that the parent(s) had participated in numerous CSE meetings, had visited the recommended schools, and had communicated with the school district. This was not enough for the SRO who decided the equities against the parent.
One takeaway message from this case is the importance of being clear about the reasons for rejecting a specific program or placement. If you've mentioned your concerns at an IEP meeting, it's probably also a good idea to follow up with a clear letter so there's no confusion. Another point to take away is that a hearing officer or review officer's has a certain amount of discretion - his or her use of that discretion can be the deciding factor in your case.