Breakdown of an IEP: Whose Fault Is It?

Children with disabilities are guaranteed access to a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) once they reach three years of age (before three, children with disabilities have access to state early intervention services designed specifically for infant and toddler development).  Each eligible child’s access to a FAPE is uniquely designed by an Individualized Educational Program (“IEP”).  Laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (“IDEIA”) encourage collaboration between parents and schools when crafting an IEP: parents are included as IEP team members, can examine their child’s records, and are guaranteed prior written notice if the school needs to make changes to an IEP.

But what happens when a parent exceeds the level of participation envisioned by the IDEIA and implementation of the IEP breaks down?

A recent case, G.K. v. Montgomery Cnty. Intermediate Unit, deals with this very question.  Diagnosed with an autism disability, G.K. received early intervention services from the state as a toddler and transitioned to services provided by the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit with age.  G.K.’s parents (particularly, G.K.’s mother) frequently complained about the services sponsored by the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit.  Over time, collaboration between G.K.’s parents and the Montgomery County Intermediate Unit, as well as the individual therapy providers, grew increasingly hostile: two service providers in a row cancelled services rather than continue dealing with G.K.’s parents.

The parents’ demands for specific therapy and intrusive behavior into day-to-day operations interfered with the IEP’s implementation. There were several months-long gaps in G.K.’s service.  G.K.’s parents eventually brought a complaint to a Pennsylvania Special Education Hearing Officer, who found that any issues regarding the execution of G.K.’s IEP were due to the parents’ behavior.  The Eastern District Court of Pennsylvania later affirmed the hearing officer’s findings, noting that parents are encouraged to participate in IEP development but can’t control the process.

Moreover, the Court identified additional disruptions by G.K.’s parents that interfered with therapy services and IEP implementation: threatening language, fraud accusations, and attacks on staff professionalism and credentials. Such disruptions moved far beyond the level of parental participation contemplated by the IDEIA.

This recent court decision doesn’t change the fact that parents are allowed (and encouraged) to collaborate on their child’s IEP and to serve as a strong advocate for their child. But it does show that ultimate control over an IEP’s implementation rests with the school district.  Parents can’t compel a school district to provide a specific program for their child.  If a parent’s inappropriate conduct interferes with the district’s ability to implement the child’s IEP, a court may find that fault rests with the parent – and not the district.