Hearing Officer Finds Parents Entitled to Full Reimbursement for Unilateral Placement at Non-ISBE Approved Program, and District Obliged to Pay for Continued Placement

In P.F. v. Chicago Public Schools #299, Petitioners filed a due process complaint to seek reimbursement for their unilateral decision to change P.F.’s placement to an out-of-state, unapproved private residential program in the prior school year, and for prospective placement with the same program at the District’s expense for the 2018-2019 school year.

P.F. is currently a 17-year old, 8th-grade student. Prior to 2018, P.F. had been diagnosed with Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder and ADHD. P.F.’s IEP placed him at a therapeutic day school, where he received 1:1 support, access to on-site social workers, individualized curriculum, and related services. Among other behavioral challenges, P.F. struggled with classroom outbursts, paranoia, and difficulty regulating emotions or receiving with instructions.

In February 2018, Petitioners unilaterally enrolled P.F. in an outdoor wilderness program in Hawaii, notifying the District that he would be on a “leave of absence.” While there, Petitioner’s private evaluator diagnosed P.F. with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Specific Learning Disability Disorder for the first time. In April 2018, Petitioners unilaterally enrolled P.F. at the private residential program at issue in this case, a $12,200-per-month school located in Utah.

Petitioners first informed the District of P.F.’s new placement via a May 2018 email in which they acknowledged they had not followed District “protocol” for placement and that the program was not ISBE-approved, but did not request District funding. The District contacted ISBE and the Utah program to seek Illinois approval, but the program remains unapproved. Petitioners declined to consider a list of 120 alternative residential programs. At a June 2018 IEP meeting, the team added an eligibility for ASD and changed placement to an unidentified residential program, but made no other changes to his IEP and never reconvened. At the June IEP meeting, Petitioners made their first request for District funding for the Utah program, which was denied.

ISBE Hearing Officer Jennifer Leisner identified two issues for consideration. First, whether the District had failed to appropriately evaluate P.F. to identify ASD as a suspected disability and thus denied P.F. a FAPE. Second, whether it was appropriate for Petitioners to have unilaterally placed P.F. at the private residential program, whether the program itself was appropriate for P.F., and whether Petitioners were due compensation.

Leisner concluded that the District had no basis to suspect a need for an ASD evaluation, which went undiagnosed by hospital and District staff, and thus did not deny P.F. a FAPE in that regard. Moreover, the District’s therapeutic program P.F. had attended was designed for ASD students and he would not have required a change in placement. However, Leisner ruled that the District had denied P.F. a FAPE by failing to adequately complete his June IEP documentation, sending identifiable student information to the private schools while seeking a substitute program, and otherwise failing to timely provide requisite information since June 2018.

As to the issue of adequate parental notice of unilateral placement, although Leisner concluded that Petitioners failed to fulfill their notification requirements in the May 2018 email, she ruled that Petitioners “gave legal notice of their intention to place [P.F. at the Utah program] at public expense at the June 2018 IEP meeting.”

Finally, although Leisner acknowledged that the private program was not approved or accredited by Illinois, not a special education school, does not offer the least restrictive environment, and does not use IEPs, P.F.’s academic and behavioral progress indicated that he is receiving a FAPE. Thus, Leisner ordered the District to reimburse Petitioners $60,000 in tuition and ordered that P.F. remain at the program for the 2018-2019 school year at public expense.

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