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Minnetonka educators fulfilled obligations to special needs child

8th Circuit rules for school district

Minnetonka Public Schools has fulfilled its obligations to a special needs student under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), according to a case decided by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On July 29, in Minnetonka Public Schools, Independent School District No. 276 v. M.L.K., by and through his parents, S.K. and D.K., the court reversed the decision of the district court, which had affirmed a decision ordering compensatory education.

The child, M.L.K, began experiencing difficulties in school when he started kindergarten. A special education evaluation conducted by the school district revealed that the child was eligible under the criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder. He received various accommodations and services throughout the next few school years. Although the child made progress, he continued to fail to meet the expectations for grade level and required support.

Before the child began third grade, his parents requested that their son be instructed using the Wilson Reading System curriculum, a popular special education curriculum that utilizes a sound-tapping system. However, the school district declined, alleging that M.L.K. would be unable to benefit from the curriculum due to his attention issues.

In 2019, which was just before the child was to start fourth grade, M.L.K. underwent an independent education evaluation, where he was formally diagnosed with ADHD and severe dyslexia, in addition to autism. M.L.K.’s parents also brought a due process challenge under the IDEA, claiming that the school district denied their child a free appropriate public education (FAPE). After the due process hearing was held in December 2019, the administrative law judge concluded that the district failed to provide the child with a FAPE. It reached this conclusion because the school district did not fully assess M.L.K. in all areas of possible disability, did not develop appropriate individualized education program (IEP) goals, did not review the IEP to help with progress, and did not offer extended school year services. As a result, the administrative law judge ordered retroactive compensatory education. After the school district sought review of the decision, the district court affirmed the ruling. It reasoned that the school district failed to properly identify the ADHD and dyslexia, which then led to an inappropriately designed IEP.

Amy Goetz, of School Law Center LLC, argued that the failure to diagnose was the primary source of M.L.K.’s academic issues. “Children with dyslexia can and should be identified as early as 3 to 4 years of age. This young man — his parents requested an evaluation in his first of two kindergarten years. The district found him ineligible,” Goetz said. “Early intervention actually changes their brain function. The earlier you start, the faster you can remediate those deficits, the more children don’t miss learning opportunities because, if you can’t read, you can’t learn much of anything, frankly.”

However, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the district court about the source of M.L.K.’s academic struggles. “While we are sympathetic to M.L.K.’s struggles, we find that his slow advancement in reading was not caused by the School District’s misclassification of his primary disabilities,” the court wrote.

Laura Booth, Partner at Ratwik, Roszak & Maloney, P.A., said, “At issue in this case really is not what the district labeled his conditions as but whether they understood his educational abilities and attended to them. And they did so.”

Booth claimed that, from the start, teachers understood and explained to M.L.K.’s parents that he had severe attention issues — requiring redirection every one to two minutes — and profound difficulty with phonological abilities. “It’s important to note that the schoolteachers in Minnesota cannot diagnose either condition,” Booth added.

The court concluded that, even if the child’s disability was misclassified, the school district still did not deny him a free appropriate public education. The court determined that the school district created an IEP that was “reasonably calculated” to allow the child to make appropriate progress.

While the district court found that the school district failed to make “meaningful adjustments” to the IEP, the 8th Circuit turned to the record and found otherwise. The 8th Circuit wrote, “[T]he overall trend shows that the School District set achievable, measurable goals that, when combined with consistently increasing special education services, were reasonably calculated to allow M.L.K. to make appropriate progress.”

Goetz avowed, “Illiteracy is not a free appropriate public education when literacy is a possibility for any child with a disability.”

Booth argued, “The IDEA requires the district to evaluate the student in all areas of suspected disability and customize his education. These public school teachers did just that. The IDEA cannot and does not promise any educational outcomes.”

The 8th Circuit agreed. “Although M.L.K. cannot read at his grade level, the IDEA looks for improvement, not mastery,” the court wrote. The court observed that the child made progress and had not regressed. It also noted that the child’s improvement was not undercut by struggles in other areas that had been unaddressed.

Finding that the school district fulfilled its obligations under the IDEA, the court vacated the district court’s order and remanded.

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