L.C. v. Arlington County School Board, No. 1:20-cv-1177, 2022 WL 1469394, 81 IDELR 65 (E.D. Va. June 24, 2022), addresses issues of free, appropriate public education and least restrictive environment in the case of a middle-schooler identified as having learning disabilities and ADHD. The decision is of interest as one in which the court thoroughly dissected the record as well as the hearing officer decision in affirming the hearing officer’s ruling in favor of the school board.

The case involved a student who was 14 at the time of the hearing. He was identified as eligible for special education in second grade and was served in the public schools through fifth grade. In fifth grade, he received 17.5 hours per week of specialized instruction in the general education environment, as well as weekly occupational therapy. At the end of the school year, when the student was to make the transition to middle school, the public school system offered 10.5 hours per week of specialized instruction in a self-contained setting and reduced occupational therapy. The parents rejected the IEP and placed the student at the Lab School of Washington.

In response to an outside assessment, the public school altered the proposed IEP at the end of that summer, proposing an increase to 21.5 hours in the self-contained services and more OT. Still another IEP meeting took place while the student was in sixth grade at the Lab School, which resulted in some modifications of the services, and yet another occurred at the start of seventh grade, with the public school offering updated goals and other IEP modifications. A change in the basis of eligibility took place in mid-seventh grade, with the addition of Other Health Impairment on the basis of ADHD. The proposed IEP was revised again, increasing the special education services to 24.5 hours per week and making other changes.

The parents eventually filed for due process, seeking tuition reimbursement and ongoing placement at the private school. The hearing officer held an eight-day hearing with 19 witnesses, and issued a 49-page decision in favor of the school board. On appeal, the court affirmed.    Citing limitations, the hearing officer and the court considered only the IEPs that were offered for the student’s seventh and eighth grade years, though reference was made to the student’s progress in public school prior to that time.

The court stated that the hearing officer correctly identified the legal standard for appropriate education as that which is reasonable, rather than ideal, and that it was not error to refer to the analogy of entitlement to a serviceable Chevrolet rather than a Cadillac, even after Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, 137 S. Ct. 988, 1000-1001 (2017), overturned the “merely more than de minimis” standard the lower courts used in that case. The court emphasized that the hearing officer decision was entitled to deference. The court said that the proposed programs offered a significant increase in the special education services offered previously in the public school, and that the student did in fact make progress in public school before middle school, meeting nearly all his IEP goals in fifth grade and passing the Standard of Learning Assessments in every area except math.

The court reasoned that the hearing officer’s discussion of the evidence submitted by the parents was adequate, and said not every credibility determination needed to be fully explained. The challenged IEP did not mention Orton-Gillingham instruction, but there was testimony that the public school could provide it and alternative approaches might suffice. The court said that the neighborhood school was the least restrictive environment in comparison to the Lab School, which has only students with learning disabilities, though it might be noted that the program ultimately offered the student by the public schools put him in special education classes, rather than in mainstream settings, for 24.5 hours per week.

The judicial opinion extensively considers both the record of the hearing and the reasoning in the hearing officer decision, analyzing the expert testimony and the hearing officer’s credibility determinations as to the student’s progress in the public school and need for services from the private placement. The case illustrates the fact that courts are likely to defer to hearing officer decisions when the judge concludes that the hearing officer has paid close attention to the testimony and given detailed reasons justifying the outcome.