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Danny K., By and Through His Mother, Luana K v. Department of Education

September 27, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Alan C. Kay Sr. United States District Judge



This case is a civil action for the review of a decision of the State of Hawaii's Office of Administrative Hearings. See Admin. R. Ex. 18 ("Admin. Decision"). Plaintiffs are Danny K. ("Student") and his mother ("Mother"). Defendant is the State of Hawaii's Department of Education.*fn2 The Court has jurisdiction under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i) and affirms.

Student is currently sixteen years old and his public home school is Castle High School. See Admin. R. Resp't's Ex. 5 at DK 25. In January 2010, Student was placed at Queen Lili'uokalani Children's Center ("QLCC"), an alternative learning center, because he had been cutting classes and failing courses at Castle. See Tr. at 10, 28, 297.

Student was identified as eligible for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") in March 2010, due to a diagnosis of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, Predominantly Inattentive Type ("ADHD"). See Admin. R. Resp't's Ex. 8; Id. Ex. 13 at DK 110.*fn3 An individualized education program ("IEP") for Student was developed on April 13, 2010. This IEP provided that Student would remain at QLCC through the end of the 2009-10 school year (which was about one month away), and then be placed in a therapeutic resource room at Castle. Id. Ex. 5 at DK 38; Tr. at 149-50.

In May 2010, however, Student set off a firework/bomb in the boys' bathroom at Castle, causing extensive damage. See

Tr. at 238-46; Admin. R. Resp't's Ex. 16; Id. Ex. 17 at DK 138.*fn4

Following Student's admission of guilt, Castle vice principal Chris Bisho notified Plaintiffs that Student would be suspended from school for one year. See Admin. R. Resp't's Ex. 17 at DK 138. Defendant then held a manifestation determination review and found that Student's April IEP was appropriate and that Student's misconduct was not a manifestation of his ADHD. See Id. Ex. 17 at DK 139.

In early August 2010, Defendant approved Bisho's recommendation that Student receive a disciplinary transfer instead of being suspended for a year. See Tr. at 249-52; Admin.

R. Resp't's Ex. 17 at DK 149. Defendant held an IEP meeting on August 4, 2010, and offered Student a placement for the 2010-11 school year at Olomana School, an alternative learning center. See Tr. at 252-54; Admin. R. Resp't's Ex. 6 at DK 55 ("Aug. IEP"). An IEP revision meeting was scheduled for August 13, 2010, but cancelled when Plaintiffs on the same day requested an impartial due process hearing. See Tr. at 342-43; Admin. R. Ex. 1 at 1.

In a due process hearing before the Office of Administrative Hearings, Plaintiffs claimed, inter alia, that prior to Student's June 2010 suspension, Defendant failed to offer an appropriate program and placement and to adequately evaluate Student's needs, and that thereafter, Defendant failed to conduct an appropriate manifestation determination review. See Admin R. Exs. 1, 10, 17; Admin. Decision at 9. The administrative hearings officer dismissed each of Plaintiffs' claims. See Admin. Decision at 10-16.*fn5

The factual background of this case is set forth in greater detail in the hearings officer's decision. See Admin. Decision at 3--9. Plaintiffs challenge some of the officer's factual findings, and the Court addresses those findings in the discussion below. Otherwise, the Court adopts the officer's factual findings to the extent that they are relevant to this case. The Court will further describe the pertinent details of the IEPs and related documents, placements, and evaluations in the discussion below.*fn6


In evaluating an appeal of an administrative decision under the IDEA, a court "(I) shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings; (ii) shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party; and (iii) basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate."*fn7 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C).*fn8

The statutory requirement "that a reviewing court base its decision on the 'preponderance of the evidence' is by no means an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review." Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 206 (1982). Rather, "due weight" must be given to the findings in the administrative proceedings. Id.

The amount of deference given to administrative findings in this context is a matter of judicial discretion. See Capistrano Unified Sch. Dist. v. Wartenberg, 59 F.3d 884, 891 (9th Cir. 1995) (quoting Gregory K. v. Longview Sch. Dist., 811 F.2d 1307, 1311 (9th Cir. 1987)). A court must "consider the findings 'carefully and endeavor to respond to the hearing officer's resolution of each material issue,' but 'is free to accept or reject the findings in part or in whole.'" Id. (quoting Gregory K., 811 F.2d at 1311). "When exercising its discretion to determine what weight to give the hearing officer's findings," a court may "examine the thoroughness of those findings" and accord greater deference when they are "'thorough and careful.'" Id. (quoting Union Sch. Dist. v. Smith, 15 F.3d 1519, 1524 (9th Cir. 1994)).

A court's inquiry in reviewing administrative decisions under the IDEA is twofold: "First, has the State complied with the procedures set forth in the Act? And second, is the individualized educational program developed through the Act's procedures reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits? If these requirements are met, the State has complied with the obligations imposed by Congress and the courts can require no more." Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206-207 (footnotes omitted); see also Smith, 15 F.3d at 1524.

Alternatively stated, the IDEA requires that individuals with disabilities be offered a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") that emphasizes special education, is designed to meet the unique needs of the Student, and will prepare the Student for further education, independent living and employment. 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1). An education is appropriate if it "(1) addresses [the student's] unique needs; (2) provides adequate support services so [the student] can take advantage of the educational opportunities; and (3) is in accord with the individualized education program." Capistrano, 59 F.3d at 884, 893; see also Rowley, 458 U.S. at 188-89. The Ninth Circuit has recently affirmed that "[t]he proper standard to determine whether a child has received a free appropriate public education is the 'educational benefit' standard set forth by the Supreme Court in Rowley," and further noted that

[s]ome confusion exists in this circuit regarding whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires school districts to provide disabled students with "educational benefit," "some educational benefit" or a "meaningful" educational benefit." As we read the Supreme Court's decision in Rowley, all three phrases refer to the same standard. School districts must, to "make such access meaningful," confer at least "some educational benefit" on disabled students. For ease of discussion, we refer to this standard as the "educational benefit" standard.

J.L. v. Mercer Island Sch. Dist., 592 F.3d 938, 951 n.10 (9th Cir. 2010) (internal citations omitted).

In looking at the educational benefit, the Court looks broadly at the Students academic, social, health, emotional communicative, physical, and vocational needs. Seattle Sch. Dist., No. 1 v. B.S., 82 F.3d 1493, 1498 (9th Cir. 1996). An appropriate education "does not mean the absolutely best or 'potential-maximizing' education for the individual child."

Gregory K., 811 F.2d at 1314. Rather, the state must only provide "a basic floor of opportunity" for the student. Id. Furthermore, although a family's preferred schooling may be more beneficial for the student than the DOE's proposed placement, this alone does not make the DOE's placement inappropriate. Gregory K., 811 F.2d at 1314. "'[A] school district fulfills its substantive obligations under the IDEA if it provides an IEP that is likely to produce progress, not regression, and if the IEP affords the student with an opportunity greater than mere trivial advancement.'" T.P. v. Mamaroneck Union Free Sch. Dist., 554 F.3d 247, 254 (2d Cir. 2009) (citation omitted); N.S. v. Hawaii, Civ. No. 09-00343 SOM-KSC, 2010 WL 2348664, at *4 (D. Haw. June 9, 2010).

The party challenging the administrative decision in an IDEA case has the burden of proof before the District Court. Seattle ...

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