Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, Eastern Division. No. 00 C 4771--James B. Moran Judge.
Before Flaum, Chief Judge, and Bauer, and Easterbrook, Circuit Judges.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Flaum, Chief Judge.
Thirteen-year-old Beth B. and her parents appeal the district court's grant of summary judgment to the Lake Bluff School District, affirming an administrative decision that upheld the school district's recommendation to place Beth in a special education classroom. Beth is severely mentally and physically challenged. Her parents have long been fighting a battle to keep her in the regular education classroom: In 1997, the school district first recommended that Beth continue her schooling in a special education, or Educational Life Skills ("ELS"), program--a placement with which her parents disagreed. When it became clear that they and the district could not reach a mutually satisfactory solution, they requested a due process hearing under sec.1415(f) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA," or "the Act"), 20 U.S.C. sec.1400 et seq. The hearing commenced on October 25, 1999; in May 2000, the hearing officer ruled in favor of the school district. Beth's parents sought review in the district court and, on September 10, 2001, the court affirmed the hearing officer's conclusion, granting Lake Bluff's motion for summary judgment. Beth and her parents now appeal to us. We recognize the difficult decisions that Beth's parents face, and we appreciate the care and commitment with which they participate in their daughter's education. However, after looking to the language of the IDEA and the congressional intent behind it, we conclude that the school district's placement does not violate the Act. For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the decision of the district court.
Beth has Rett Syndrome, a neurological disorder that almost exclusively affects girls. It results in severe disabilities, both cognitive and physical. Beth is nonverbal; she uses an instrument called an eye gaze, a board with various pictures and symbols that she singles out with eye contact, to communicate her wants and needs, as well as other communication devices that allow her to choose among symbols or to hear messages recorded by others. She relies on a wheelchair for mobility. She, like nearly all Rett sufferers, has an extreme lack of control over body movement. Although her mental capacity is difficult to assess precisely, due to her extreme communicative and motor impairments, some experts contend that she has the cognitive ability of a twelve-to-eighteen-month old infant. Others estimate that she has the ability of a four-to-six-year old. She is unable to read or recognize numbers.
Beth has been educated in regular classrooms at her neighborhood public school for seven years. She is currently in the seventh grade at Lake Bluff Middle School with other thirteen-year-old children. Students in the seventh grade attend six 42-minute classes a day. They have three-minute passing periods between class. Beth's aides help her travel from room to room during the passing periods, although it is extremely difficult for her to do so in such a short time frame. Since the first grade, Beth has worked with a one-on-one aide at all times and has used an individualized curriculum tied in subject matter, as much as possible, to that of the other students in the class. Beth's current curriculum is geared toward someone at a preschool level. When her peers worked on mathematics, she was exposed to various numbers. When the class studied meteorology and weather patterns, she looked at pictures of clouds. Beth cannot participate in class discussions or lectures.
The school district held an annual conference with Beth's parents, teachers, and district administrators to review Beth's individualized education program ("IEP"). After her second grade year, the school district recommended at her IEP meeting that Beth be placed in an ELS setting. No appropriate special education environment exists in the Lake Bluff District; Beth would have to attend school in a neighboring school district*fn1. The ELS program recommended by the district would be located in a public school building and would serve students between the ages of six and twenty one with mild, moderate, or severe handicaps. Generally, six to eight students comprise one ELS classroom, and the student-teacher ratio is one-to-one. ELS students in the program are mainstreamed into regular education classrooms during music, library, art, computer, and certain social studies and science classes, and join other students at the school during lunch, recess, assemblies, and field trips. Additionally, reverse mainstreaming is employed; that is, regular education students come into the ELS classroom to allow for interaction between ELS and non-ELS students.
Beth's parents disagreed with Beth's placement in an ELS program, requested a due process review under the IDEA, and invoked the Act's stay-put provision, which has allowed Beth to remain in the regular classroom at her neighborhood school pending the resolution of this litigation. 20 U.S.C. sec.1415(j).
Beth's parents argue that the school district's placement of Beth in an ELS classroom violates the IDEA.*fn2 The district court erred, they contend, in upholding the administrative decision finding otherwise. Although we review the school board's ultimate decision de novo because it is a mixed question of law and fact, we will reverse only if the district court's findings were clearly erroneous, absent a mistake of law. LaGrange, 184 F.3d at 915.
A. Deference to the Findings of the Administrative Hearing Officer
We find as an initial matter that the district court gave proper weight to the findings of the hearing officer at the administrative proceedings. Because school authorities are better suited than are federal judges to determine educational policy, the district court is required, in its independent evaluation of the evidence, to give due deference to the results of the administrative proceedings. Id. (citing Heather S. v. Wisconsin, 125 F.3d 1045 (7th Cir. 1997)). The hearing officer correctly applied the burden of proof and found that the district satisfactorily showed that its proposed IEP was adequate under the IDEA. The district was not required to prove that Beth received no educational benefit at her local school, as her parents suggest. We also find that the hearing officer did not err as a matter of law in failing to consider whether the ELS placement was the least restrictive environment;*fn3 he did consider whether it was the least restrictive appropriate environment, that is, whether Beth would be mainstreamed to the maximum extent ...