Federal Court Rules That A School District May Not Move a Disabled Student With Down Syndrome and Diabetes From His Neighborhood School For Purposes of Administrative Convenience
In a case handled by McAndrews Law Offices, Abington Heights School District v. A.C., a federal district court judge ruled that the Abington Heights School District may not abruptly move a student with multiple disabilities, A.C., to a different school while administrative due process proceedings were pending. The student, A.C., was born with Down Syndrome, and has attended his neighborhood school, Waverly Elementary, since Kindergarten. During second grade, A.C. was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes such that it was determined that he needed daily nursing care. At that point, the District proposed to move A.C. from a learning support program at Waverly to a life skills program at a different school in the District, Clarks Summit Elementary, which also had a full-time nurse. The family instituted due process proceedings pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) to contest the proposed changes both in A.C.’s program, from learning support to life skills, and his placement, from Waverly to Clarks Summit.
After the due process complaint was filed, the District requested that the presiding hearing order that the District may immediately move A.C. from Waverly to a learning support program at Clarks Summit, even though whether A.C. would be educated at Clarks Summit or Waverly was one of the issues to be decided in the upcoming due process proceedings. The District’s stated reason for this proposed immediate change was administrative convenience – because Waverly did not have a full-time nurse, the district would have to bring in additional part-time nursing care to Waverly to provide A.C. the level of nursing care he required. Although the family offered to provide a private nurse to “fill in the gaps” at Waverly at no cost to the district, the District refused the offer because, it asserted, its collective bargaining agreement with the school nurses’ union would not permit this arrangement. The District also argued that, under IDEA, it was free to move A.C. from one school building to another (such as from Waverly to Clarks Summit) so long as his program did not change.
The due process hearing officer rejected the District’s position. He ruled that, because of A.C.’s well-documented with transitions, an immediate move to Clarks Summit would cause A.C. educational harm. He thus ruled that Waverly was A.C.’s “pendent” placement and that A.C. could remain at Waverly during the pendency of the due process proceedings, and issued a “stay-put” order to that effect. In response, the District took an emergency appeal of the ruling to federal district court, where the District asked the court to reverse the hearing officer’s stay-put order and allow the District to immediately move A.C. to Clarks Summit. The court conducted an evidentiary hearing during which the family presented testimony from a neuropsychologist that an immediate move to Clarks Summit would cause A.C. educational harm, and from A.C.’s pediatric endocrinologist that the stress of the move would also harm him medically. Following additional briefing, the court issued an opinion denying the District’s request, finding that it had not met its burden of obtaining the injunctive relief that it was seeking. The court specifically rejected the District’s argument that, despite the educational and medical harm to A.C. that would result from the proposed move, it was nevertheless entitled to abruptly move A.C. because of the lack of a full-time nurse at Waverly: “If the Court enjoins the current stay-put order and A.C. is placed at Clarks Summit Elementary, A.C.’s transition and medical needs, in conjunction with the lack of a transition plan to aid A.C.’s move to Clarks Summit Elementary, would create a significant harm to A.C. In turn, any harm to the school district presents only solvable issues of a financial, staffing, and administrative nature.” Under the court’s ruling, A.C. is allowed to remain in his neighborhood school, Waverly, until the due process proceedings, including any appeals, are concluded.
The court’s decision in A.C. is significant in that it reinforces the strong preference set forth in IDEA that a student’s placement should not be disturbed while a dispute about that placement is ongoing. The court’s decision also reinforces a key tenet of IDEA: that each case involving a disabled student is unique and should be decided on the particular facts of the case. Thus, while school districts may argue that as a general rule, they may change the location where a disabled student receives his or her services, and that it may allocate resources such as nursing services as it sees fit, such considerations may not prevail in a particular case involving a particular child.