In Compton v. Addison, a school district failed to identify or evaluate a child who was failing academic classes, functioning years behind her peer group, and suffering from severe, disabling anxiety.
Despite clear signs that Addison had a disability and needed special education services, the district failed to evaluate her. The district did not advise her mother of her right to request an evaluation for her daughter.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires states to enact policies and procedures to ensure that:
“All children with disabilities … regardless of the severity of their disabilities, and who are in need of special education and related services, are identified, located, and evaluated …” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(3)(A) - Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, Page 72.
Addison had a long history of academic problems. On standardized testing in eighth grade, she was reading at the 4.0 grade level and doing math at the 4.3 grade level. Although Addison was more than four years behind her peers in reading and math, the school did not propose to evaluate her to determine if she had a disability and needed special education services.
She was promoted to ninth grade.
In ninth grade, Addison’s schoolwork and emotional health spiraled down. She received low and failing grades in academic subjects. On standardized testing in ninth grade, Addison’s reading and general mathematics were below the 1st percentile.
Despite failing grades and extremely low scores on standardized testing, Addison was promoted to the tenth grade.
In tenth grade, Addison was quiet and withdrawn. She had no friends. Her teachers described her work as "gibberish and incomprehensible." Her anxiety increased. She could not enter the classroom without coaching. She colored with crayons, played with dolls, and urinated on herself in class.
The school counselor referred Addison for mental health services. The mental health provider recommended that Addison be evaluated for learning disabilities and an IEP. The school did not follow though on these recommendations.
At the end of tenth grade, Addison failed all academic subjects. She failed the California High School Exit Exam, and performed below the first percentile in reading and math.
Addison was promoted to the eleventh grade.
In September 2004, Addison’s mother wrote a letter to the school. She requested that the district conduct an evaluation, a behavioral assessment, and hold an IEP meeting for Addison.
A Student Study Team (SST) meeting was rescheduled several times. A school psychologist evaluated Addison in December 2004. On a nonverbal test of cognitive ability, Addison received a standard score of 82 (12th percentile; low average range). On the Woodcock-Johnson-III, Addison's academic skills were:
Broad reading: 5.4 grade
The school psychologist found that Addison had deficits in visual motor skills, visual processing difficulties, and auditory memory deficits. Although social emotional tests were deemed invalid, the school psychologist did not conduct additional testing.
In January 2005, the school found Addison eligible for special education as a child with a specific learning disability:
"Academically, Student was unable to focus, complete class assignments, and was behind her peers in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Behaviorally, Student did not ask for help, was lost in a large regular education class, and was isolated from her peers." (ALJ Decision, page A-71)
The IEP team developed an IEP that placed Addison in a resource program for about two hours a day. School staff felt she needed more intensive services than provided in the resource placement, but thought they had to comply with "least restrictive environment" requirements. Other team members "did not want to push Student too far."
Lack of Progress in Special Education Program
In October 2005, the school reassessed Addison to determine if she was eligible for special education as a child with an emotional disturbance. In this evaluation, the child’s academic skills were essentially unchanged from the evaluation in December 2004:
Broad reading: 5.6 grade (gain of 0.2)
The psychologist concluded that Addison was not eligible as a child with an emotional disturbance. He recommended that the team develop and implement a behavior support plan (BSP).
In December 2005, the team met to review the recent testing. Addison had not met any of the goals and objectives in the January 2005 IEP. The team continued the same goals for the rest of the school year and lowered the criteria to achieve each goal. Addison’s placement was changed to special day classes for science and history. She continued to receive “support” through the resource program for math and English.
In January 2006, the team met for the annual review of Addison’s IEP. All goals and objectives from the previous year were continued because none of the goals had been met.
In January 2006, Addison was 40 credits shy of the credits necessary to graduate with her classmates.
For a more detailed description of the background, issues, factual findings, legal conclusions, and orders, please read the decision by the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ): http://www.wrightslaw.com/law/caselaw/06/ca.alj.addison.compton.pdf
Due Process Hearing
In November 2005, Addison and her mother requested a special education due process hearing. The hearing was held in March 2006.
1. Did the District meet its child find obligation in regard to the Student from November 28, 2002, until January 26, 2005, to identify Student’s disabilities and provide an educational program to address her needs?
2. Was the District’s December 8, 2004 assessment of Student appropriate?
3. Did the District deny Student a free appropriate public education (FAPE) by failing to timely convene an Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting and failing to provide appropriate academic support and address her social and emotional needs, as described in its January 26, 2005 IEP?
4. If the District failed to identify Student’s disabilities and offer or provide her with a FAPE, is she entitled to compensatory education and services?
The ALJ concluded that
The ALJ held:
“Student is entitled to an independent evaluation, the completion of the referral for a mental health assessment, and three hours of one-to-one academic tutoring by a credentialed teacher every week in an amount not to exceed 150 hours.”
School District Appeals to Federal Court
In July 2006, Compton Unified School District (CUSD) filed an appeal in federal court on one issue:
“… the IDEA does not require or authorize a due process hearing or impose liability based on a school district's negligent failure to timely identify a student as eligible for special educational services under the IDEA.”
The District argued that:
“…Student's allegation that CUSD failed to discharge its obligation under the IDEA child-find provision is … ‘not available for due process’ because the District's failure to assess her for eligibility for SLD services was attributable to neglect, rather than a refusal to act.”
Put simply, the school district appealed because they did not refuse to evaluate Addison, but simply neglected to act.
The District Court did not accept this position.
The school district’s claim“…conflicts with the clear language of the IDEA and federal regulations, is not supported by applicable case law, and would lead to the illogical and unjust conclusion that Student and her mother have a recognized right under the IDEA but no means to enforce (and, ultimately, no remedy for) violations of that right. I reject CUSD's challenge and uphold the ALJ's conclusion …”
The full text of the District Court decision is at http://www.wrightslaw.com/law/caselaw/07/ca.compton.addison.childfind.pdf
Appeal to Court of Appeals of the Ninth Circuit
The school district appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In a 2-1 decision, that Court found that the school district ignored many “red flags” that the child had a disability.
The Court of Appeals analyzed the claims under IDEA:
“ … States enact policies and procedures ensuring that “all children with disabilities . . . who are in need of special education services  are identified, located, and evaluated.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(3)(A). This obligation is also known as the “child find” requirement.
Procedural Safeguards: Due Process Complaint Requirement
“The IDEA also requires states to implement a number of procedural safeguards to ensure that disabled children receive an appropriate education … [including] the opportunity for any party to present a complaint “with respect to any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(6)(A).
Procedural Safeguard: Written Notice
“The IDEA requires that local educational agencies provide written notice to a child’s parents whenever the agency ‘proposes to initiate or change’ or ‘refuses to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child’...” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(3).
Court of Appeals Decision
Citing a recent Supreme Court decision, the Court of Appeals held:
A “reading of the [Individuals with Disabilities Education] Act that left parents without an adequate remedy when a school district unreasonably failed to identify a child with disabilities would not comport with Congress’ acknowledgment of the paramount importance of properly identifying each child eligible for services.” Forest Grove School Dist. v. T.A., 129 S. Ct. 2484, 2495 (2009).
. . . .
“We conclude that claims based on a local educational agency’s failure to meet the ‘child find’ requirement are cognizable under the IDEA, and that here, the School District had clear notice of this fact. Accordingly, the district court’s orders granting judgment on the pleadings and awarding attorneys’ fees are AFFIRMED.
Read the full text for the Court of Appeals decision here:
The school district requested rehearing and rehearing en banc. No judge requested a vote on whether to rehear the case en banc. The school district’s petition was denied.
Appeal to Supreme Court
In January 2011, CUSD filed a petition for writ of certiorari to request that the Supreme Court decide the case. (01/07/11)
Petition for Writ of Certiorari: http://www.wrightslaw.com/law/caselaw/11/supct.compton.addison.cert.pdf
Whether the special education due process hearing procedures under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (2010), allow a parent to bring a claim of negligence against a school district, or whether due process hearing claims are limited to disputes regarding intentional decisions made by the school district.
Reply Brief in Support of Petition for Writ of Certiorari
This brief by attorneys who represent the school district lays out reasons why the Supreme Court should decide the case. One reason: “Creates a claim for educational malpractice for disabled students where none exists for non-disabled students.”
Respondent’s Brief in Opposition
In the Respondent’s brief, Addison’s attorneys focus on why the Supreme Court should not grant cert in her case.
There is no split among lower courts or circuits on the question presented. Although the school district predicted that the decision will “open the floodgates to sweeping claims to educational malpractice,” no evidence supports this claim.
Court Asks Solicitor General for Position
On April 18, 2011 the Supreme Court asked the Solicitor General to file a brief describing the views of the administration in Compton Unified School District v. Addison, et. al, docket 10-886.