Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Mental Health Services

L.J. v. Pittsburg Unified Sch. Dist., No. 14-16139, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 16201 (9th Cir. Sep. 1, 2016)

Ninth Circuit rules that a student was eligible for special education services based on prior psychiatric hospitalizations and suicide attempts even though those incidents occurred outside the school environment, and directs that an individualized education plan be developed for the student despite findings that the student was performing well at school.

Background: L.J. was a primary school student exhibiting behavioral problems in grades two through five. L.J.’s mother repeatedly requested that the school district find L.J. eligible for special education under the IDEA, but the requests were denied. Through mediation, the school district agreed to transfer L.J. to another school, provide one-onone counseling through a paraeducator, and provide an assessment by a school psychologist. Despite the services provided, L.J. continued to act out violently and made two suicide attempts resulting in his confinement to a psychiatric hospital, which caused him to miss six school days. L.J.’s mother filed a request for a due process hearing claiming the school district failed to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) by denying L.J special education services and that the district failed to make requested records relating to L.J.’s counseling available. An administrative law judge ruled that L.J. did not have any qualifying disabilities and even if he had such qualifying disabilities, L.J. was not eligible for special education services because his academic performance was satisfactory when he was able to attend school. On appeal, the district court ruled that L.J. had qualifying disabilities, but did not need special education services because of his satisfactory academic performance. 

Holding: The Ninth Circuit reversed and held that the student was eligible for special education services. The court ruled that the student exhibited a need for services because his improved performance was due to his receipt of special education services, and that the student's psychiatric hospitalizations and suicide attempts were relevant to his eligibility for specialized instruction even though they occurred outside the school environment. The court also held that the school district committed procedural violations of the IDEA by failing to disclose school records and failing to conduct a health assessment.

Notable Point:

Qualifications for special education services: The court explained that a student with qualifying disabilities is nonetheless ineligible for special education services if support provided through general education services is sufficient to address the needs of the student. The Ninth Circuit ruled that the lower courts mischaracterized the specialized services L.J. was receiving as falling under general education services.

Found in DMHL Volume 35, Issue 3