MILLBURN, NJ – Administrative Law Judge Tiffany Williams ruled last week in favor of parents who sued the Millburn School District, finding that the district must pay for private residential school for an emotionally troubled student. 

When a student is classified for special education, his/her local school district no longer owes him/her just a “free public education;” now the district owes him/her a “free appropriate public education.” To be appropriate, an educational program must permit a student to progress rather than regress or stagnate in his/her education.

In this case, despite evidence that the student had significant emotional issues that were adversely impacting her education, the district did not classify her for special education until after the parents went to the district seeking assistance. The district found her eligible for special education and also determined that because of her emotional needs it could not provide her an appropriate education in the public school. The district therefore proposed that she attend a private therapeutic day school. This placement would have been at district expense, as it would be the “free appropriate public education” that it was providing to her.

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The problem, however, was that all of the professionals who had worked with the student privately, as well as a private evaluating neuropsychologist, all determined that her educational needs were so great that while she needed a therapeutic school, it had to be a residential school where her programming would be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and not a day school. According to Lori Gaines from Barger & Gaines, the attorneys representing the parents, “the District ignored the recommendations of these professionals and never even bothered to research possible residential schools. Instead, the district outright rejected placing her in a residential school.”

The parents therefore unilaterally placed her at New Haven, a therapeutic residential school in Utah, and then sued the district for reimbursement of the costs of that school.

Judge Williams held that the district’s proposed therapeutic day school was not appropriate and that New Haven was appropriate. She wrote in her decision that “[her] emotional issues are not segregable from her educational progress and are so intertwined that it is not reasonably possible for her to succeed educationally without fully addressing her emotional and psychological issues. Accordingly, I conclude that Cornerstone (the day school) was not an appropriate placement for [the student] because it does not meet her minimal needs, which would be served at a residential placement.”

The judge ordered that the district reimburse the parents for the costs of her placement at the residential school. The judge also stated that it is the district’s responsibility to fund, at no cost to the parents, appropriate educational programs and placements for its special education students.

Gaines told TAP into Millburn, “The federal law recognizes that there are certain students who are going to require residential schooling in order to be appropriately educated. And it is the obligation of school districts to provide appropriate programming to their special education students even if that means placing them in a residential school.”

Gaines said, “Unfortunately, school districts are very quick to outright reject residential schooling as an option. That is what happened in this case. The Millburn Township Board of Education ignored substantial evidence that this student required a therapeutic residential school in order to progress educationally. The Board of Education, after receiving this substantial evidence, didn’t even bother to call the residential school recommended for [her].”

“Judge Williams in fact found that the Board of Education had made it abundantly clear that it had no intention of considering any residential placement. She then found in favor of [the student] and ordered that the Board of Education reimburse her parents for all costs of their placing their daughter in a residential school which is something the District ought to have done on its own,” she added.

Gaines concluded, “We are thrilled with this outcome for this family and most importantly for [the student].”

TAP into Millburn contacted the Millburn Township Public Schools and asked whether the district will appeal, how much the residential placement will cost the district, and whether the district had any other comments.  Nancy Dries, Communications Coordinator for the Millburn Township Public Schools, replied, “The district is reviewing this decision with legal counsel. We have no comment at this time.”