Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 93cv01370)
Before: Wald, Sentelle and Henderson, Circuit Judges.
FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT
Opinion for the Court filed by Circuit Judge Wald.
The parents of Siobhan Holland, an emotionally troubled teenage girl, allege that the District of Columbia Public Schools ("DCPS") violated procedural and substantive requirements of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1400 et seq. (1994) ("IDEA" or "Act"), and that those violations entitle the parents to reimbursement for the costs they incurred placing Siobhan in an appropriate private residential educational setting. Despite finding that the residential school constituted an appropriate placement for Siobhan, the hearing officer for the case ruled that the parents were not entitled to reimbursement for their child's education because they had unlawfully withheld their consent for DCPS to evaluate her as required by the IDEA. The Hollands appealed to the district court, which granted DCPS' Motion to Dismiss the Complaint or in the Alternative for Summary Judgment. The district court held that "DCPS must evaluate Siobhan Holland before a placement determination is made under the IDEA," and ruled in favor of the educational agency. Holland v. District of Columbia, No. 93-cv-1370, Memorandum Opinion, at 6-7 (D.D.C. Sept. 8, 1994) ("Mem. Op.").
We find that the IDEA guarantees Siobhan's parents the right to have DCPS respond to their reasonable inquiries regarding the evaluation and placement process, and therefore remand to the district court to determine whether DCPS ever responded to the reasonable inquiry which the record shows the Hollands made. If, in fact, DCPS provided the parents with specific information regarding the tests to which it proposed to subject Siobhan, then the Hollands cannot prevail on their claim. If, on the other hand, DCPS refused to provide the Hollands with an answer to which the IDEA and implementing regulations entitled them, the Hollands must prevail.
Siobhan Holland was a troubled thirteen-year-old girl enrolled in private school when her quest for publicly funded special education began in early 1992. At that time, Siobhan's parents requested that DCPS evaluate their daughter to determine her eligibility for publicly funded special education and, if appropriate, propose a placement for her in accordance with the mandates of the IDEA.
The IDEA provides federal money to assist state and local educational agencies with the education of children with disabilities. See 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1400(b)(9). To qualify for the federal assistance, a participating state must guarantee all children with disabilities the right to a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"), id. Section(s) 1412, in accordance with an individualized education program ("IEP") developed by people familiar with the child's needs, see id. Section(s) 1414(a)(5). The statute guarantees an "appropriate" education for every child with a disability, but does not necessarily guarantee the child the best available education. See Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 200 (1982).
In 1991, when Siobhan was thirteen years old, her parents admitted her to the Psychiatric Institute of Washington ("PIW") because of troublesome behavior. Siobhan had run away from home several times for short periods, and had carved obscenities into her arm with a razor blade. After two weeks in the residential program at PIW, Siobhan was discharged and returned home. Shortly thereafter, in February 1992, Siobhan's parents requested that DCPS evaluate her to determine her eligibility under the IDEA for a free appropriate public education, and, if appropriate, propose a placement for her.
Under Mills v. Board of Education of the District of Columbia, 348 F. Supp. 866, 878 (D.D.C. 1972), DCPS had twenty days from the date of the request to complete its evaluation and diagnosis, and then up to thirty more days to propose a placement for Siobhan. Upon DCPS' failure to evaluate the child within this time frame, the Hollands requested a due process hearing before an independent hearing officer, as was their right under the IDEA. 20 U.S.C. Section(s) 1415(b)(2).
On May 14, 1992, the Hollands got their due process hearing. The hearing officer ruled that DCPS's delay had denied Siobhan her due process rights and ordered the agency to evaluate her and, if appropriate, propose a placement for her by June 12, 1992. On May 17, the Hollands, through their attorney, provided DCPS with a 1991 independent psychiatric evaluation of Siobhan, along with a letter and discharge summary from her stay at PIW.
On May 19, the parties began the exchange of letters that gives rise to the factual question on which this case turns. In an effort to comply with the hearing officer's order, DCPS wrote to Matthew Bogin, the Hollands' attorney, in order to schedule a clinical psychological evaluation and social history for either May 20 or May 22. The next day, Bogin and a ...