Amended IEP May Be Implemented Over Parents’ Objection

In K.A. v. Fulton County School District the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the IDEA does not require a school district to request a due process hearing when the IEP team amends an IEP and the parents object. Rather, it is the parents’ responsibility to request a due process hearing.  The panel also held that any procedural deficiencies in the school district’s IEP notice to the parents did not result in prejudice or harm and were therefore non-actionable, and that parents cannot sue under § 1983 for IDEA violations.

K.A., who suffers from Down’s Syndrome, repeated kindergarten and subsequently  her parents met with school officials to develop an IEP for first grade.  The new IEP placed K.A. in regular classes for some subjects and in special education classes for others.  In first grade, her teachers observed that she was having behavior problems and difficulty keeping up with the curriculum.  School officials then met with K.A.’s parents to discuss amending the IEP to address K.A.’s challenges.  The school staff recommended  transferring K.A. to a different elementary school and placing her in a “mildly intellectually disabled” program.  The parents disagreed.  Over the parents’ objection, the school district amended the IEP, requiring K.A. to attend the new school.

The parents requested a due process hearing to challenge the amended IEP. and pursuant to “stay put”, K.A. remained in her present school.  The Hearing Officer (HO) dismissed the parents’ claims, and a federal district court upheld the HO’s decision.  The parents challenged the procedures used to adopt the new IEP, but not its substance.

The parents raised four issues in their appeal to the Eleventh Circuit.  Principal among them was the argument that the school district, not the parents, should be required to request a due process hearing and defend the proposed amended IEP.  The parents also claimed that: (1) they were deprived of prior written notice and notice of their procedural rights as required by the IDEA; (2) the district court applied the wrong standard of review to the Hearing Officer’s decision and ought to have taken additional evidence; and (3) the parents are entitled to relief under § 1983 because the school district’s actions violated their rights under the IDEA and the U.S. Constitution.

The court panel agreed with the school district that a school district may amend an IEP even if the parents do not consent to the amendment, if the amendment occurs at an IEP team meeting.  Further, the panel rejected the parents’ argument that “the school district must present a complaint, request a due process hearing, and bear the burden of proof at the hearing before the amendment can be implemented.”  The court panel stated: “We are unable to identify anything in the statute that suggests Congress intended to require school districts to present a complaint and prevail at a due process hearing in order to amend an IEP if the parents do not consent.”  The panel also concluded that any procedural deficiencies in the school district’s IEP notice to the parents did not result in a violation of the IDEA warranting relief because no prejudice or harm resulted.  The panel upheld the district court’s discretionary authority not to take additional evidence.  Lastly, the panel rejected the parents’ argument that it had a § 1983 claim for statutory violations of IDEA and held that “We join the First, Third, Fourth, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, and hold that section 1983 actions for denial of rights conferred by the IDEA are barred because the IDEA’s comprehensive enforcement scheme provides the sole remedy for statutory violations.”

Although an 11th Circuit Court decision, this case provides helpful guidance for Pennsylvania school districts when faced with parental opposition to necessary IEP amendments as recommended by the IEP team.  Of course, while the school district need not file for due process before implementing the amended IEP, it must be prepared to defend against a due process challenge brought by the parents.