Those who follow the intersection between special education and technology know there is a dearth of administrative decisions and case law addressing what, if any, responsibility school districts have to provide or otherwise pay for technology for special education students. A recent administrative decision from Massachusetts sheds some light on this murky area. The case was unique because rather than addressing whether a device was “assistive technology” necessary to provide the student a free, appropriate public education (FAPE), it was looking at whether the district had complied with a hearing officer decision requiring it to reimburse for tuition and related expenditures for a unilateral private residential placement. Nonetheless, because the case addressed when technology might be an essential part of a special education student’s program, it’s worth a read for school leaders who deal with these issues.

The case involved a highly intelligent special education student with Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, and related issues. In an earlier administrative decision, a hearing officer found that the student’s school district, Barnstable Public School, was required to reimburse the student’s parents for their unilateral placement of the student at a private residential school, Franklin Academy, which the student began attending after the parents disagreed with the school district’s proposed high school placement for the student. Following that decision, Barnstable reimbursed the parents in full for tuition payments they made to Franklin Academy and expressed willingness to reimburse the parents for certain transportation expenses. The school district disputed, however, whether it was required to pay the parents for numerous “related expenses,” including certain technology expenses. Specifically, the parents asked for $11,224 for reimbursement for an Apple laptop computer, an iPad, and iPhone, audiobooks, various accessories, data plans, software, apps, phone fees, and other similar expenses. The parents argued that the items at issue were components of “special education” and/or “related services,” and, therefore, must be provided at no cost to the parent.

Applying the standard that reimbursement is only available for expenses that were reasonably and actually incurred by the parents as necessary to ensure the student’s access to or benefit from the program of instruction at Franklin Academy, the Massachusetts’ Bureau of Special Education Appeals found in in re Barnstable Public Schools found that the school district was not responsible to reimburse the parents for most of the technology expenses. Although much of the equipment was required by Franklin Academy (such as the Apple laptop), and although it may have been helpful or even necessary for the student to participate in the school, because the parents purchased the vast majority of the technology prior to the student beginning school at Franklin Academy and did not buy the technology specifically to be used at the school, the school district was not required to pay for it. Although the student may have benefited from his iPhone, iPad, audiobooks, apps, and accessories, because the parents did not present any evaluations, IEPs or similar evidence suggesting that such technology was necessary for the student to access or benefit from the educational program at Franklin Academy, they could not recover for those devices. In contrast, because Franklin Academy required a data plan for the laptop, and other limited electronic equipment that could be specifically tied to the school, the District was required to reimburse the parents for approximately $1,196 to cover the costs of those materials.

Although this case deals with the relatively limited issue of whether and when a school district must reimburse parents for costs associated with technology in private placements, it is an important reminder that special education students and their advocates are seeking technology from schools. School leaders must pay careful attention to all requests related to technology to strike the proper balance between providing students the required free, appropriate public education and the fiscal challenges that are often exacerbated by the ever growing amount of technology aimed at the educational sphere.