The Law Center has been involved in several special education cases in Alaska.
Decisions Returned in Alaska Supreme Court in September
A year after argument before the Alaska Supreme Court in the cases MP v. Anchorage School District and JP v. Anchorage School District, the Court has issued rulings in part for the parents and in part for the school district. In September 2011, the Court issued its ruling in JP. The first Alaska Supreme Court ruling in favor of the parents in a special education matter, the decision sets an important precedent on the issue of the parents’ right to have a school district pay for an independent educational evaluation when the district fails evaluate a student promptly. In December, the Court issued its decision in MP, ruling that while the district was allowed to place MP in a segregated classroom when the regular teacher took a sabbatical, they violated MP’s rights by keeping MP in the segregated class when the teacher returned.
Ninth Circuit Decision in Anchorage v. MP Vindication for Parents
In a strongly worded opinion, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has held that school districts cannot blame parents when they fail to provide children with disabilities a free appropriate public education. In Anchorage School District v. M.P., issued July 19, 2011, the Court was faced with parents who were zealously advocating for their elementary school child who had been diagnosed with high-functioning autism, and related developmental disabilities. After the parents filed an administrative hearing, and invoked their child’s right to stay in his program while the matter was decided by the courts, the school district refused to update the child’s IEP goals and other areas the parents and school district could agree upon for the next school year, a “take it or leave it approach” and teachers were left with an outdated program of education to follow. The parents subsequently purchased private tutoring services for their child. A hearing officer found for the parents, based on the outdated IEP and the District’s “take it or leave it” approach and ordered reimbursement for most of the tutoring. On appeal, a federal district court blamed the parents and reversed. The Ninth Circuit reversed, reinstating the hearing officer’s decision in favor of the parents, and concluding: “The IDEA mandates that public educational agencies review and revise annually an eligible child’s IEP. Nothing the IDEA nor its implementing regulations condition this – or any other duty expressly imposed on a state or local educational agency upon parental cooperation or acquiescence in the agency’s preferred course of action. Penalizing M.P.’s parents – and consequently M.P.- for exercising the very rights conferred by the IDEA undermines the statute’s fundamental purposes.” The Court went on to point out that endorsing the school’s view would force the parents to make a “Hobson’s choice: accept the district’s proposed IEP despite its deficiencies or forego even modest improvements to M.P.’s educational programs. The Court said that the district’s “take it or leave it” approach was contrary to the IDEA and ruled for the parents.
Alaska SD Ordered to Provide Ed. Services & Air Transportation to School
In March 2011, a hearing officer ordered the Southwest Region School District to pay for CO, a client of the Law Center’s, to fly to a neighboring village three times a week for schooling. The district must also fully implement CO’s IEP, starting finally after almost two years of failing to do so. Further, the hearing officer noted that if the district fails to comply with his order, he will order them to pay for CO and his mother to live in Anchorage at the district’s expense.
Alaska Supreme Court Hears Special Education Cases for First Time
On September 14, 2010, Law Center Director of Disability Rights Sonja Kerr argued before the Alaska Supreme Court – the first time that any lawyer has argued a special education matter before the Alaska Supreme Court on behalf of a student. Two cases were heard. First, PP v. Anchorage School District concerns the responsibility of school districts to timely identify and evaluate students. PP is an Alaska Native student who is both gifted and dyslexic. His parents contend that he was denied a timely evaluation, forcing them to pay for an evaluation and tutoring, and that they were denied access to their rights by the District’s failure to provide them with written notice of the refusal. The District has contested paying for the evaluation and tutoring. Second, MP v. Anchorage School District will be heard concerning MP, a student of elementary age who has autism. MP’s parents were denied written notice that he would be moved from a regular education classroom for instruction in writing to a segregated special education classroom when a teacher left the school, and MP was not returned to the regular classroom when the teacher returned. The District’s argued that it was not required to give prior notice, and that because MP was progressing academically in the segregated classroom it was only a ‘minor discrepancy’ from MP’s IEP.