March 20, 2024

Pacifica Client’s Win in School-Refusal Case Carries Lessons for WA School Districts

A federal judge ruled in favor of Pacifica client Seattle Public Schools (“the District”) earlier this month in a case involving its handling of a student with autism’s refusal to attend school. The decision by Judge Marsha J. Pechman of the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington, emphasized that students with disabilities who refuse to go to school do not automatically qualify for residential placement, and highlighted the importance for school districts of following best practices when addressing school-refusal behavior.

Judge Pechman’s decision reversed, on appeal, an administrative law judge’s (“ALJ”) 2022 ruling, which found that the District failed to provide the student free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) in violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). The ALJ had awarded more than $1 million plus attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff parents to cover the costs of the student’s private residential placement at a New York school for children with autism where tuition exceeds $500 thousand per year.

Under the IDEA, public school districts are required to provide accommodations including an individualized education plan (“IEP”) for students with disabilities. In situations involving school refusal, this may include conducting a functional behavioral assessment (“FBA”) and developing a behavior intervention plan (“BIP”) aimed at helping the student return to school. In some cases, this may also include paying for residential placement.

In J.H. v. Seattle Public Schools, No. 2:23-cv-191 MJP, (W.D. Wash. 2024), the student’s parents sued Seattle Public Schools alleging denial of FAPE after the District declined the parents’ request that it to cover the costs of private residential placement for their child, who was refusing to attend school. Instead, the District conducted an FBA and developed a BIP, and were in the process of working with the student when the 2021-2022 school year ended. The parents chose to pursue the residential placement for 2022-2023, and sued the District for compensation to cover the costs.

In her decision, Judge Pechman found that the District’s “intervention methods met best practices for school refusal” and that the District’s work on the FBA and BIP did not constitute a denial of FAPE. She also noted that plaintiffs presented “inadequate evidence that the FBA or BIP were flawed in such a way as to render the IEP inadequate.”

Judge Pechman also found that the ALJ erred in determining that private residential placement was the least restrictive environment (“LRE”) for the student for the 2022-2023 school year. The IDEA’s LRE provision requires that, whenever possible, children with disabilities should be educated alongside their peers who are not disabled. Based on precedent set in Sacramento City Unified Sch. Dist. v. Rachel H., 14 F.3d 1398, 1404 (9th Cir. 1994), Districts must use four factors in determining whether residential placement is in the best interests of the student. In her decision, Judge Pechman wrote that the ALJ erred in not considering the “four factors set forth in Rachel H.” in her evaluation of the appropriateness of private residential placement. Judge Pechman also explained that “the Court’s separate consideration of the four factors shows that they weigh against private placement,” and that “there were both academic and non-academic benefits to [the student]’s attendance at his local school,” including the progress he made on his IEP and his friendships with two other students.

A Pacifica Law Group team that included partner Sam Chalfant and counsel Sarah Johnson represented Seattle Public Schools in the 2022 hearing before the ALJ, and in its successful appeal to the U.S. District Court.

Click here to download a PDF of the decision.

Pacifica’s School Districts attorneys regularly guide clients through addressing the school refusal process and are able to defend the district’s work if and when legal challenges arise. For questions regarding school refusal or other matters, please reach out to Sam Chalfant or any member of our School Districts team.