When does the law require districts to fund a residential program for a student with special needs? - All Children Learn

Author:  Catherine Merino Reisman, Esq.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that school districts make available “a continuum of alternative placements available to meet the needs of children with disabilities for special education and related services.” This includes placement in a public or private residential program, if that is necessary for a free appropriate public education (FAPE). When a child needs residential programming for FAPE, the school district will be responsible for all costs of the program, including non-medical care and room and board.

Courts look at whether a student’s educational needs cannot be separated from social, emotional, and mental health needs. If a student cannot achieve educational benefit without residential therapeutic supports, the school district will be responsible for the residential placement. If residential placement is necessary for medical, social, or emotional challenges apart from the learning process, the school district will not be responsible for the costs of the residential placement. Some fact patterns, from real cases but without real names, are below.

  • During the school year, Jake was psychiatrically hospitalized 4 times over 8 months. Jake had diagnoses of schizophrenia, ADHD, conduct disorder, and mood disorder, as well as a history of violent behaviors. While hospitalized, he was unable to access the services outlined in his IEP and he missed over four months of services. Upon discharge, Jake’s psychiatrists informed his parents and school district that he needed a residential placement to access educational services. The school district proposed placement in a private special education day school. Parents filed a request for due process. The hearing officer concluded that the evidence established that, without a residential placement, Jake would enter into a cycle of repeated psychiatric hospitalizations. The hearing officer noted that, in the prior year, Jake’s hospitalization and absences from school prevented him from receiving services. Based on the record, the school district denied Jake a free appropriate public education when it proposed a non-residential placement.
  • Helen was eligible as a student with an emotional disturbance. Her parents placed her in a residential program after multiple suicide threats. The hearing officer held that the evidence established that, while at home, Helen regularly attended a public high school and achieved average grades in her classes. Although the residential placement provided educational services, the hearing officer found that the educational benefit was incidental. The hearing officer and court held that the parents made the placement for medical reasons rather than educational reasons. The school district was not responsible for the costs of the residential placement.
  • Angela was eligible as a student with multiple disabilities, including profound intellectual disabilities. Although she was a teenager, Angela functioned at the level of a four-year-old. She could not eat, dress, or go to the bathroom without assistance. She showed inconsistent ability to respond to simple commands. She was known to elope. The school district offered day programs for years and, eventually, the parents filed for due process, seeking a residential placement. At hearing, a school psychologist testified that Angela needed greater continuity and consistency and would not make educational progress without a residential component to her programming. The school district argued that the residential services concerned skills of daily life and not education. The hearing officer and court disagreed, noting that for children with profound disabilities, the concept of education is broad and includes being taught how to pay attention, talk, respond to warnings, and dress and feed oneself. Therefore, the failure to offer a residential placement was a denial of FAPE.

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