H.R. v. District of Columbia, No. 21-CV-1856-TJK-RMM, 2022 WL 2110503 (D.D.C. Apr. 29, 2022) (magistrate judge recommendation), adopted, 2022 WL 2106245, 122 LRP 19952 (D.D.C. June 10, 2022), offers an instructive application of the maintenance of placement (“stay-put”) rule, 20 U.S.C. § 1515(j). The student had been educated at the Lab School of Washington, D.C., a private school for students with disabilities, but the public school system proposed a series of IEPs that would place him at a public school with a hybrid general education-special education environment. A hearing officer ultimately ruled that the proposed public school placement was appropriate, but the parents continued to object, filed a district court action, and requested a preliminary injunction. The magistrate judge recommended the preliminary injunction be issued. The district judge adopted the report and entered the injunction.

The student was diagnosed with ADHD, a developmental coordination disorder, and a specific learning disability in reading. After the student received neuropsychological evaluations in December 2017 and January 2018, the Lab School enrolled the student for the 2018-19 school year. The public school system offered an IEP in July 2018, which called for the student to receive what the parents believed to be inadequate amounts of specialized instruction, and the parents filed for due process. The hearing officer issued a decision on May 24, 2019, in favor of the parents, finding a failure to offer free, appropriate public education and ordering the system to reimburse the parents for the tuition for the 2018-19 school year.

The system offered a new IEP for 2019-20, which the parents also considered inadequate, and the parents again filed for due process. The parties settled, with the system placing the student at the Lab School and funding the tuition. After that school year the system again proposed an IEP for the 2020-21 school year with which the parents disagreed. That proposal called for placement of the student at a local public school, the Murch School. The parents again filed for due process, contending that:

(1) the May 2019 HOD—the hearing officer decision that ordered DCPS to place H.R. at the Lab School and fund his education there for the 2018-19 school year—created an “agreement” between the parties that the Lab School was H.R.’s stay-put placement pending resolution of the 2020 due process proceedings, and (2) placing H.R. at Murch instead of the Lab School would change H.R.’s educational placement “because, among other things, it [would change H.R.’s] number of specialized instruction hours and [would change H.R.’s] school … from a non-public school to a public school with classes containing upwards of thirty students.”

2022 WL 2110503, at *3 (quoting in part the hearing officer decision).

The hearing officer granted the parents’ motion for stay-put relief on Jan. 11, 2021. The merits of the case continued to pend, and the challenged IEP expired. The public school system offered a new IEP on Apr. 29, 2021. The parents filed a motion for directed verdict as to the 2020 due process request, then a motion to dismiss that hearing request as moot, meanwhile filing a new due process request over the April 29, 2021, IEP. The hearing officer ultimately dismissed the parents’ challenge to the 2020 IEP, ruling not that it was moot but rather that the 2020 IEP met free, appropriate public education standards. The parents promptly appealed the hearing officer decision to district court and requested a preliminary injunction.

In recommending that the injunction be granted, the magistrate judge reasoned that the stay-put injunction is automatic when section 1415(j) applies, and the usual preliminary injunction standards need not be met. The ruling said that the relevant IEP for determining the current placement is that prior to the challenged IEP, and that agreement by the school system to an IEP or placement makes it the current placement. The challenged IEPs of 2020 and 2021 thus did not establish the current educational placement. Since the parties did not focus on any recent uncontested IEP, the magistrate judge looked to the location of the educational services, noting, “Other courts have also recognized that a student’s enrollment at a school like the Lab School can determine the operative ‘current educational placement’ for a DCPS student, prioritizing the “physical school” factor over the student’s IEP.” Id. at *6 (collecting authorities). The magistrate judge further stated that the 2019 settlement related to the 2019-20 school year also placed the student at the Lab School.

The decision reasoned further that the proposal to withdraw funding for the Lab School and enroll the student at the public school with special education services was a fundamental change of the student’s educational placement, pointing out that cases have determined that a change in location can constitute a fundamental change in education placement if the change substantially alters a student’s educational program. “The principal difference between placement at Murch and the Lab School is that at Murch H.R. would be educated in a general education setting at a public school instead of in the exclusively special education environment at the Lab School, which is private. Hearing Officer Lazan observed that the Lab School is ‘a stand-alone special education school where the Student does not associate with typically developing students and does not attend classes in the general education environment. . . . ’ Murch, by contrast, is ‘a DCPS elementary school that provides education services to both general education and special education students.’” Id. at *7 (quoting hearing officer decision, then declaration in record). Moving the student to Murch would leave the student with only 15 hours per week in a special education setting.

The magistrate judge noted that the hearing officer’s ruling on the merits that the 2020 IEP was appropriate was not germane. Approval of the school’s proposal did not imply that it worked no fundamental change. As the magistrate judge stated, “The Court will examine the adequacy of the April 2020 IEP when it rules on the merits of the Parents’ appeal; the IDEA requires that the status quo be preserved in the interim.” Id. at *8. Ultimately, the defendant did not object to the recommendation, and the district judge adopted it.

The decision thus gives guidance about what the current education placement should be deemed to be and what a change in that placement constitutes, all in the context of the recurrent situation of a public school system wishing to move a student from a specialized private setting to a public school with special education instruction.