Luke is a child with autism. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Paso Robles Unified School District (PRUSD) became responsible for providing Luke with a free appropriate public education when he turned three years old. A free appropriate public education requires the provision of specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. Importantly, the IDEA requires that when a school district is given a reason to suspect that a child has a disability, it "conduct a full and individual initial evaluation" that ensure the child is assessed for "all areas of suspected disability" using a variety of reliable and technically sound instruments.
From an early age, Luke attended a regional center, which provides early intervention services for at-risk infants and toddlers in California. At the time of the events in the case, children continued to qualify for services at regional centers for only very specific conditions after the age of three when local school districts become responsible for the education of children with disabilities. Those specific conditions included Autistic Disorder.
Luke's parents had a meeting with staff from Tri-Counties, the regional center where he received services, and PRUSD to discuss what would happen when Luke turned three years old. PRUSD scheduled a date on which to conduct an initial assessment to determine whether Luke was a child with a disability, and PRUSD's notes from the meeting indicated that Tri-Counties would also perform a psychological assessment of Luke, presumably to test for Autistic Disorder in order to determine whether he qualified for further regional center services.
PRUSD conducted an initial evaluation prior to Luke's third birthday during which William Peck, a PRUSD psychologist, stopped by to observe Luke. From his cursory observation, during which he did not utilize any standard assessment tools, Peck concluded that Luke's behavior was uncharacteristic of a child with a disorder on the autism spectrum. PRUSD did not explain to Luke's parents that it had thought about assessing Luke for autism, that it had called Peck to observe for that reason, or that it decided not to formally assess Luke for autism based on Peck's informal observations.
Approximately one month later, Tri-Counties performed a psychological assessment of Luke to determine whether he had Autistic Disorder and therefore qualified for continued regional center services. The final report provisionally diagnosed Luke with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified, a disorder on the autism spectrum. Despite its diagnosis and recommendation, the report was not discussed at the IEP meeting held by PRUSD two days after it received the report from Tri-Counties, nor did PRUSD reevaluate its decision not to assess Luke for autism.
Luke exhibited signs of extreme difficulty in school. During his second year in school, Luke's mother requested that the school fund an independent evaluation of Luke for autism. His parents also retained a behavior specialist and had Luke privately assessed. The specialist diagnosed Luke with Autistic Disorder. PRUSD did not complete the assessment for almost an entire year, at which time Peck opined for the first time that Luke had autistic-like behavior. In the meantime, Luke's parents had arranged for him to receive behavioral therapy and he began speaking, including multi-word sentences, to people who had never before heard him speak.
The Ninth Circuit found that PRUSD violated the IDEA's essential procedural requirement that it conduct an initial evaluation to assess a child "for all areas of suspected disabilities" when it failed to formally assess him for autism or autistic-like behavior. The Court rejected the argument that although PRUSD was aware that Tri-Counties suspected Luke might be autistic, it did not need to assess him for autism because Peck informally observed Luke and did not see him exhibit any such behavior. The Court reasoned that the IDEA requires that if a school district has notice that a child has displayed symptoms of a covered disability, it must assess that child in all areas of that disability using the thorough and reliable procedures specified in the IDEA. It further rejected the argument that PRUSD may not have needed to assess Luke for autism because it knew that Tri-Counties was going to assess him. The Court found there was no evidence of this and PRUSD took no steps to ensure that Tri-Counties' assessment complied with the requirements of the IDEA imposed on PRUSD.
Finally, the Court held that PRUSD's fundamental procedural violations denied Luke a free appropriate public education for two school years because the District's failure to assess Luke for all areas of suspected disability deprived his IEP team of critical information that made it impossible for the team to consider and recommend appropriate services necessary to address Luke's needs. In so holding, the Court considered that there was no evidence that Tri-Counties' evaluation was conducted with the intent of helping Luke's IEP team develop an appropriate educational plan and no evidence the IEP team actually considered the evaluation. This substantially impaired Luke's parents' ability to fully participate in the IEP process and deprived Luke of critical educational opportunities.
This decision highlights the importance of determining when a school has notice of a suspected disability as well as communication amongst the IEP team, including parents. It also highlights the significance of IDEA requirements. In its decision, the Court highlighted that early diagnosis and intervention is critical for the education of children with autism: with early and appropriate intervention, as many as 25% of children with early autism will no longer meet the criteria for that disorder, and for the remaining children, intervention in their preschool years greatly increases the likelihood that they will learn to verbally communicate.
Timothy O. v. Paso Robles Unified School District (2016) __ F.3d __ [2016 WL 2957215].