Understanding Who’s Responsible for FAPE with NPS Placements

I had an experience today at an IEP meeting for a student we represent that made me realize that there is some confusion out there amongst parents and educators about who (or what entity) is responsible for which aspects of a student’s IEP when the student has been placed in a non-public school (“NPS”) placement. This posting addresses this area of confusion and will hopefully make sense of the situation.

In our client’s situation, her IEP calls for certain things that are currently being provided by her NPS placement, which is not as restrictive of a setting as other NPS placements in the Greater Los Angeles Area, but is more restrictive than a public school setting. For her, it’s the Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”) relative to her needs.

To say that this certain NPS conglomerate is politically attached at the hip to Los Angeles Unified School District (“LAUSD”) is a gross understatement. It was this incestuousness that made understanding who was responsible for what so confusing to the parents, the NPS teaching staff, and the District rep present at the IEP meeting – though the District rep finally understood what I was trying to make clear. The problem was that even though she finally got what I was saying, she had no authority to do anything about it.

The District-level deal making – which the NPS’ administrator didn’t seem to have a problem discussing with great candor – had occurred with far higher-ranking District personnel than the poor school psychologist sent to our IEP meeting on behalf of LAUSD. Without going into the gritty details (which is only going to make me mad all over again), I want to focus on the technical considerations. Hopefully by doing so, I can prevent other IEP teams from struggling over these same issues.

The problem was that our student has experienced a medical condition that she will now have for the rest of her life. Now, due to this condition, she can no longer take the medications that were addressing some of the learning issues that arise from the handicapping conditions that make her eligible for special education. This has changed her special education needs and has resulted in a new need for which some tweaking of her IEP was required. She needed additional accommodations and modifications to address homework completion issues and potentially some type of service to assist her with getting her homework done.

The NPS currently offers an after-school homework club, but even though it is an NPS serving students on IEPs at public expense, it was charging the parents a fee for her participation in the after-school homework club. This flies in the face of the definition of a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”).

34 CFR Section 300.17 defines a FAPE as being special education and related services that are provided at public expense and without charge to the parents, among other things, hence the use of the word “Free” in “Free Appropriate Public Education”. The imposition of a charge in order for our client to receive educational benefit amounted to a denial of a FAPE.

However, the NPS administrator was quite verbose during the IEP meeting (which we audio recorded as per parents’ rights) about how her NPS and the District had worked it out so that the after-school homework club would never be placed on students IEPs and was only offered as an “extra-curricular activity” such as music or sports teams rather than as a related service. I’m not going to belabor the point of just how non-compliant that is, but suffice it to say that a whole due process case could be built around that issue alone.

The NPS and the District had reached an agreement to refuse to put something on students’ IEPs even if it was educationally necessary. Presumably this was because the District didn’t want to have to pay for the service and was attempting to pass the expense on to the families of students attending the NPS. And, this NPS gets the bulk of its business from LAUSD. Rather than stand its ground and refuse to participate in unlawful activity, it hopped right into bed with a school district that has been under a Consent Decree from the Federal Courts since the 1980s for failing to implement compliant special education programs as a willing accomplice.

The parents were upset with the NPS, which heavily markets itself as being a heavy-hitter in the area of non-public schools for children with special needs. However, as disgusting as the NPS’ policy is, it’s not the NPS that bears the burden of providing its students with a FAPE. That burden is borne by the students’ individual school districts. In this case, the school district responsible for our client’s receipt of a FAPE was LAUSD.

The problem is that LAUSD and this NPS have gotten into bed with each other to develop a “take-it-or-leave-it” package deal. If a student requires anything beyond what the NPS offers, even if it’s just a supplemental related service, their collective answer is to suggest that the student be placed at a different NPS.

So the NPS administrator suggested that our client, who is finally having a good school year in every regard except certain aspects of homework completion, should be uprooted and taken away from her friends and familiar learning environment so she could get supplemental support with homework, which is outrageous to say the least. It certainly wasn’t an offer of a FAPE (failing on the “Appropriate” of “Free Appropriate Public Education”). The LAUSD rep started to go down this path with her until we said, “Wait a minute!” They were throwing out the baby with the bath water.

The real answer was for LAUSD to push in some kind of additional support in addition to the NPS placement and make it part of the student’s IEP. But, as I said, the rep that LAUSD sent in did not have the authority to do any such thing. We would actually have to file for due process to effect such a change to our client’s IEP; in any other school district, the same change would have been achieved within 15 minutes via a few emails and an administrative amendment that didn’t even require an IEP meeting.

We ended up informally agreeing that the parents wouldn’t be charged for the after-school homework club by the NPS as well as adding accommodations and modifications to the IEP and making some changes in the student’s related services to better support her needs. But, we couldn’t get the District to agree to put anything in the IEP that obligated it to pay for the support that had already proven to work, that being the after-school homework club. The NPS simply informally agreed (though it was captured on the audio recording) to eat the $15 per session fee.

This is less than desirable because, should the NPS shut down its after-school homework club, there is nothing to obligate the District or the NPS to continue supporting this area of need in our client’s IEP. We would have to come back to the table to come up with another idea, the NPS would again suggest that our client change schools in order to receive this one relatively simple service, and we’d probably end up having to file for due process just to get some kind of after-school homework support added to her IEP, which is ridiculous. That’s a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources to fight something that is so commonly provided pretty much everywhere else without even a hint of acrimony.

The point I want to make here is that parents should not be running to their children’s NPSs asking for things that are the burdens of their school districts to provide. NPS personnel should not be telling parents “Your child can’t have that service because we don’t provide it. You’ll just have to change schools.” What goes into an IEP is an IEP team decision and school districts should be sending representatives to all its IEP meetings who are empowered to actually facilitate a compliant IEP team meeting in which the team members – not some smarmy back-room dealings between the District’s upper administration and non-public entities sucking up and willing to aid an abet in the denial of a FAPE in exchange for a large block of business – determine the content of students’ IEPs as required by law.

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