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9th Circuit: Evidence of a student’s solid academic performance relieves school district of responsibility to conduct a special education evaluation

November 01, 2021

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By: Lily Crespo Esq.

Quick Takeaway: A district’s duty to evaluate a student diagnosed with an IDEA-eligible disability hinges on whether it believes the student needs specialized instruction as a result. Evidence of a student’s solid academic performance can bolster a district’s argument that a special education evaluation was unnecessary. By highlighting the student’s ability to earn A’s, B’s, and C’s in the general education curriculum with Section 504 accommodations, the district in this case showed it had no reason to suspect a need for special education.

What happened: Neither a California district’s alleged delay in evaluating a high schooler diagnosed with ADHD, reading comprehension difficulties, and a visual impairment nor its failure to find the student eligible for IDEA services amounted to a denial of FAPE. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a District Court ruling at 77 IDELR 289 that the district complied with its child find obligation.

Case Summary: A high schooler’s ability to earn good grades in her general education classes with the assistance of Section 504 accommodations supported a California district’s decision to wait until the student’s senior year to evaluate her need for IDEA services.

  • The 9th Circuit upheld a District Court’s ruling at 77 IDELR 289 that neither the timing of the evaluation nor the district’s determination that the student was ineligible for special education violated the IDEA. The three-judge panel explained that the district had no reason to suspect the student had an IDEA-eligible disability when she first enrolled at the start of 11th grade.
  • Although private evaluators had diagnosed the student with ADHD, reading comprehension difficulties, and a visual impairment, the panel pointed out that the student’s history of strong academic performance indicated she only needed Section 504 accommodations, not specialized instruction.
  • The panel further noted that the teen earned A’s, B’s, and C’s in her general education classes, which supported the district’s decision to hold off on an IDEA evaluation until the parents notified it that they had arranged for private one-to-one instruction.
  • “[T]he record lacks the kind of warning signs that would trigger [the district’s] obligation to assess [the student] for an IEP before [her senior year],” the panel wrote in an unpublished decision.
  • As for the district’s subsequent determination that the student was ineligible for IDEA services, the panel observed that the district conducted a thorough assessment of the student’s educational needs. Based on the results of those assessments, as well as information suggesting that the student’s one-to-one instruction did not qualify as “special education,” the 9th Circuit agreed with the District Court that the student did not need specialized instruction to receive an educational benefit. Legris v. Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. U.S. Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit. 121 LRP 35474. 10/18/21.

What the case means for educators: This case illustrates where a Child Find duty was not triggered because the student exhibited normal grades. Educators can face the accusation that they have violated the Child Find obligation and IDEA’s procedural requirements. “Child Find” encapsulates a school district’s duty to assess whether a child is eligible for special education once the school district is on notice of a suspected disability. While the ruling from the Ninth Circuit is not necessarily surprising, it does clarify what can relieve school district of their Child Find obligation.

As you consider these and other issues, we recommend you speak with your school lawyer or contact Bea, Kevin, Megan, Beth, and Lily by email or at 406-542-1300 to discuss these issues.

Kaleva Law

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