In Artichoker v. Todd County School District, D.D. was a 12-year-old student enrolled in the Todd County School District. Karen Artichoker was the legal guardian of D.D.
During the first month of D.D.’s seventh-grade year, the School District reported a number of behavioral incidents. In September 2014, Artichoker had a discussion with school officials about D.D.’s behavior. During this conversation, Artichoker verbally requested an evaluation for D.D. to determine if she was eligible for special education services under IDEA.
In response, the School District held a teacher assistance team (TAT) meeting, which the school principal described as the first step in the special education evaluation process. Artichoker claimed that at the TAT meeting a psychologist advised the meeting’s participants that D.D. was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and offered an explanation of the disorder. The School District claimed that while the psychologist was present at the TAT meeting, she was described as a “friend” of Artichoker, and spoke generally about PTSD rather than about D.D. having a PTSD diagnosis.
The TAT team developed a written plan to assist D.D. with her behaviors, which included advising D.D. of the behaviors that were inappropriate for the classroom environment through a behavioral plan, and a combination of removing D.D. from the classroom when she became disruptive and allowing D.D. to receive more frequent breaks from classroom activities.
About a week later, Artichoker placed D.D. in the Avera Behavioral Health Adolescent Program, where she stayed for ten days. Without returning to school, D.D. then went to the Wellspring Residential Treatment Facility to begin a forty-five day course of residential chemical dependency treatment. Upon completing this program, D.D. was scheduled to return to school, but called in sick, attended school for two days, called in sick again, and did not show up for school the next week. The School District’s winter break began the following Monday, and due to a winter storm, lasted a week longer than usual.
D.D. had two weeks of attendance in the School District until she was suspended for five days for “assaulting a student and making threats toward a student via social media while at school.” D.D. later returned to school, but brought a dangerous weapon to school and was suspended for the remainder of the semester. During the suspension, D.D. did not receive any educational services for the remainder of her seventh grade year.
Artichoker filed an IDEA complaint against the School District and requested a due process hearing, claiming that the School District had “violated D.D.'s rights under IDEA and deprived her of a free appropriate public education (FAPE), by failing to conduct a full, individual special education evaluation, and by failing to provide D.D. with FAPE or any IDEA procedural rights during the three and one-half months of her expulsion.” As part of the complaint, Artichoker also requested a full and individual evaluation as allowed under IDEA, an IEP, compensatory education, “including one on one tutoring beginning in the summer, one on one counseling,” and attorney's fees.
The School District responded and a due process hearing was scheduled. The hearing examiner considered multiple issues, including “whether the School District's expulsion of D.D. without the procedural safeguards of IDEA deprive her of FAPE.”
On appeal to the federal district court, the School District argued that the hearing examiner erred when she found that D.D. had been denied FAPE when the suspension occurred without IDEA's safeguards.
In this case, D.D. was suspended for more than ten days without receiving FAPE from the School District in an alternate setting. IDEA provides procedural protections for children even if they - as was the case with D.D. at the time - have “not been determined to be eligible for special education and related services . . . if the local educational agency had knowledge . . . that the child was a child with a disability.” Knowledge under this specific section occurs when a parent requests a full and individual evaluation for special education services. However, a school district is excused from this knowledge if “the parent of the child has not allowed an evaluation of the child . . . or has refused services.”
The School District first argued that it had no actual knowledge of D.D.’s disability because it was never provided with a written diagnosis of D.D.’s disability before the suspension. It argued that although the psychologist discussed PTSD at D.D.’s TAT meeting, it had no knowledge that D.D. suffered from PTSD. In rejecting the School District position, the court found that the TAT meeting was convened only for D.D. and no other student was discussed at the meeting. Thus, when the psychologist discussed PTSD during the TAT meeting, the School District could surmise that D.D. might have PTSD. The School District also admitted that Artichoker requested an evaluation of D.D. well before D.D.’s suspension from school.
The School District also argued that because it offered to pay for an out-of-district placement for D.D. and Artichoker refused, it could not be found to have knowledge of D.D.’s disability prior to her suspension. The School District asserted that it offered to place D.D. at an out-of-district school during her long term suspension, but that Artichoker refused those services. However, the court found that any such offer occurred verbally and apparently casually over the telephone during a conversation between Artichoker and the principal. Artichoker's declination of one, or possibly two, informal and vague verbal offers of out-of-district placements was because Artichoker hoped to keep D.D. living at home. The court was not persuaded that this was a full rejection of all special education services offered to D.D. and the School District should have confirmed any offer in writing to Artichoker.
In sum, the court upheld the hearing examiner’s decision that D.D. should have received the protections of IDEA during her suspension. “This is not a situation where the School District’s actions resulted in only a procedural defect of IDEA. Here D.D. went three and a half months without any access to educational services because of a failure of the School District to begin a timely evaluation.”
For more information about the proper procedures to discipline a special education student, read Chapter 21 of The South Dakota School Law Deskbook.