The child-find obligation imposed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that school districts promptly identify, locate, and evaluate students who are suspected of having disabilities. 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(3)(A). In Krawietz v. Galveston Independent School District, 900 F.3d 673, 72 IDELR 205 (5th Cir. Aug. 17, 2018), the court of appeals affirmed a district court holding that a school district violated the obligation by waiting four months after it had reason to suspect a student had a disability before beginning to evaluate her for special education. The district originally identified student as IDEA-eligible when young, but the parents withdrew her and initiated home-schooling, not returning her to the district until five years later. At the beginning of the school year in August, the parents enrolled her in ninth grade, but the district incorrectly assumed that she had been dismissed from special education when previously served by the district. In September, she received a suspension and two-month-long disciplinary alternative placement for engaging in sexual activities in a school restroom. In November, she was failing most of her classes and was provided a Section 504 plan on the basis of post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. The accommodations, though, did not include a behavior plan.
She completed ninth grade but in the fall semester of tenth grade she completed fewer than half of her credits and was hospitalized after she made $1500 in unauthorized online purchases. On February 9 of that school year, her parents requested a due process hearing under IDEA; at the resolution session, the the district proposed, and the parent consented to, an evaluation of the student, and on April 21, the district found her eligible under IDEA. The hearing process continued forward, and the hearing officer ruled that the student was IDEA-eligible, and that the district deprived her of appropriate education by violating its child-find duty. The hearing officer did not order the residential placement and reimbursement of services requested by the parents, but ordered the district to design an IEP for the student that included all the recommendations in the evaluation. The district court affirmed and ordered attorneys’ fees at 67% of lodestar figure.
The court of appeals affirmed. It reasoned that the combination of factors, including the deterioration in academic performance and the hospitalization should have led district to suspect the student needed special education at latest by October of her tenth grade year, and that even if date the district requested that the parents consent to the evaluation, February 16, were to be considered the relevant date on which the district complied with its child-find duty, that four-month delay was not reasonable. The court distinguished Dallas Independent School District v. Woody, 865 F.3d 303 (5th Cir. 2017), in which a three-month delay was deemed not ureasonable, stressing that, in Woody, the delay was not attributable solely to the district and the district took active steps during that period to comply with its obligation. The court further affirmed the attorneys’ fees award even though the hearing officer rejected the residential placement and reimbursement relief the parent requested, stating that the parents achieved some of the benefit sought in the due process proceedings when the hearing officer ordered the district to design an IEP for student that included all the evaluation’s recommendations.
There is no shortage of reported cases concerning child-find violations, and the cases often turn on their individual facts. An unexcused four-month delay is well within what courts have found to be unreasonable and a violation of the statutory duty, even in a situation in which, as in Krawietz, the parents did not “act with any urgency” for three of the four months. As the court said, “the IDEA imposes the Child Find obligation upon school districts, not the parents of disabled students.” Krawietz, 900 F.3d at 677.