Understanding the Special Education Rights of Twice-Exceptional Students: Woodsmall Law Group Secures a Watershed Decision
Twice-exceptional students often face difficulties receiving proper accommodations, supports, and services from school districts. Teachers and administrators may downplay the limitations a student may face by focusing on their high test scores and classroom participation and overlooking any disabilities they may be dealing with. However, school districts have a duty to properly assess students for disabilities in a timely manner, prepare 504 plans or IEPs to meet their needs, and ensure parents have an active role in their child’s education. It does not matter if a student is performing well in school; schools must follow the guidelines outlined under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) to ensure they have access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
In the recent case of A.P. et al. v. Pasadena Unified School District, Woodsmall Law Group upheld a twice-exceptional student’s rights to FAPE following the school district’s failure to follow proper procedures and ensure her access to appropriate supports and services through an IEP.
Background on the Case
Woodsmall Law Group represented a twice-exceptional student who suffered from performance-anxiety and depression which resulted in multiple missed classes and tardiness. After leaving her previous school, she attended Pasadena High School, where she received a 504 evaluation. The evaluation identified her as a twice-exceptional student who had shown great academic skills but also suffers from a learning disability. The student received a 504 plan and accommodations to help her with assignments, but she was not provided with an IEP or further evaluations.
However, the student’s depression and anxiety resulted in severe tardiness in the fall semester, including 28 absent days, and a drop in grades. In the following semester, the student was hospitalized after a suicide attempt. Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD) agreed to access her for further special education needs, and she was enrolled in an independent studies program, but did not improve. Her parents then transferred her to Bridges Academy, which specializes in educating twice-exceptional students and providing special education services.
The student’s mental health and education improved at Bridges Academy, and PUSD held an IEP meeting to determine the next course of action. The District suggested the student continue with independent studies or attend two non-public schools: Hillside School and Learning Center and STEM-3 Academy. The parents continued to enroll the student at Bridges Academy, but PUSD refused to pay for the student’s tuition.
The parents then filed a request for a due process hearing, which ruled in the favor of the District. As a result, the parents pursued a lawsuit against PUSD to have the matter resolved in a California courtroom.
Legal Standard for the Case
The basis for the plaintiff’s case against the school district was that the district had violated the Individuals with Disability Act (IDEA) by not following procedural requirements in providing the student access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The plaintiffs cited three areas where the school broke protocol:
- Child Find: The plaintiff argued that PUSD failed to identify the student’s need for an IEP based on evidence from the 504 evaluation. The school district did not consider the student’s psychologists’ testimonies, intellectual potential in relation to her disabilities, and previous school performance. The school district argued that the parents had a duty to share information about the plaintiff’s home life and mental health. It also argued that the accommodations provided under the 504 plan were appropriate for the plaintiff’s situation and further IEP services were not necessary.
- Post-Secondary Transition: The plaintiffs argued that the school district failed to provide a post-secondary transition plan and caused emotional harm due to a denial of the IEP process. Post-secondary transition plans allow special education students to evaluate several career options following graduation from K-12 programs and prepare a student for independent living. The school district argued that the failure to provide a transition plan was harmless.
- School Placement: The plaintiffs argue that the school district failed to determine where a student’s IEP would be utilized by only providing two school options, but did not determine the most appropriate option.
The Court’s Decision on the Case
At the conclusion of the trial, the court sided with the plaintiff on two matters:
- Child Find: The court agreed that the school district did not take full responsibility for the child find requirement and deprived the plaintiff FAPE by violating IDEA. The court dismissed the school district’s “slippery slope” argument that the school had to evaluate problems at home with regards to students with mental illnesses and dismissed the argument that parents have sole responsibility to report emotional disturbances. The court also determined that the school failed to uphold FAPE by attempting to supplement IEP serves and supports with 504 plan accommodations.
- Post-Secondary Transition: The court accepted testimony that the student’s depression affected their ability to groom, eat, and take care of themselves, leading it to dismiss the argument that not providing the transition plan was harmless. The court agreed that it resulted in a loss of educational opportunities and did not include goals of independent living.
With regards to the school placement dispute, the court sided with the school district in ruling that it was the procedural violation was harmless in this case. For relief, the court deferred final judgment until the plaintiffs provided a timeline of expenses, which may include psychological treatment and tuition.
The Importance of This Case
The case A.P. et al. v. Pasadena Unified School District is a watershed decision in how special education laws are enforced and what role school districts have in assisting students with emotional disturbances.
School districts have a duty to evaluate all students for special needs and provide appropriate aid to ensure a student’s access to FAPE. When PUSD failed to take appropriate steps to identify the plaintiff’s disabilities, despite expert testimony, it delayed her ability to receive the supports and services she needed to succeed in school. The school district initially took her exceptional academic success as evidence that she did not have a disability, ultimately leading to her sudden decline. The court notes that “the District was not entitled to ignore plain evidence of Student’s disability merely because Student had good grades and attendance during the first month of school.” Schools should not treat twice-exceptional students as free of disabilities, and this case highlights that fact.
This case also brings to light issues school districts have with providing proper evaluations for mental illness. The school district initially treated her disability as an issue that was limited to her home life and stated that the parents did not inform the district that her mental illnesses were the cause of her truancy. Ultimately, this argument is designed to shift responsibility from the school district to evaluate students onto parents to inform the school of emotional disturbances.
However, the court acknowledges the flaws in this argument. First, the school district was made aware of the student’s disability through her previous truancy record and testimony from two psychologists at the 504 meeting. Based on this information, the court states that “the District should have referred Student for an evaluation to determine the best way to go about meeting Student’s specific needs in accordance with her disability.” The court also notes that the school district violated the child find duty in placing responsibility on the parents and student, rather than taking ownership of the responsibility, which is the school district’s duty.
Standing Up for Twice-Exceptional, Disabled Students
This case is just one of many being conducted across the country around the rights of disabled, twice-exceptional students. Woodsmall Law Group is dedicated to guiding parents and students through the legal process to ensure access to FAPE and special education services and supports. If you need legal representation in a special education dispute, we encourage you to reach out to us for a free initial consultation. Call us today at (626) 440-0028 to speak to an experienced Los Angeles special education attorney.