When a dispute arises between parents and a district concerning the special education identification, evaluation, placement, or free appropriate public education (FAPE) of a student, the IDEA provides that the student will remain in his or her “then-current educational placement” during the pendency of the dispute. This provision, often called “stay-put,” ensures consistency in a student’s educational programming during a dispute and prevents the district from unilaterally changing the student’s placement.

So if a district proposes to change a student’s placement and the parents file a due process complaint to oppose the change, the change cannot be implemented while the due process hearing is pending. Even if the hearing officer rules in favor of the district, if the parents appeal to the district court, the student must remain in the prior, stay-put placement. And, if the prior placement was in a private school, the district must continue funding that placement as long as stay-put applies.

On the other hand, if parents are dissatisfied with the educational program their student is receiving and unilaterally place the student in a private school while filing a due process complaint seeking reimbursement, stay-put does not immediately apply. The parents must initially pay for the private placement. But if the state due process hearing officer finds in favor of the parents, the decision is treated as an agreement between the parents and the state, and the private placement is the student’s stay-put placement if the school district appeals the decision.

The determination of a student’s stay-put placement can be complicated. Courts have reached different conclusions on two key issues. One issue is whether stay-put continues to apply if the decision of the district court is appealed to the appellate court. The other is who must pay for a private stay-put placement if the district ultimately prevails (i.e., the court finds that the IEP and placement the district offered were appropriate).

In M.R. v. Ridley School District, a case from Pennsylvania, a district court addressed both issues. In that case, parents of a second grade student rejected the IEP offered by the school district and enrolled the student in a private school. The parents filed a due process complaint and the state hearing officer found in their favor. At that point, the private school became the student’s stay-put placement and the district was responsible for funding it. The district appealed the hearing officer’s decision and the district court found in favor of the district. The parents then appealed to the Third Circuit Appellate Court, which also found in favor of the district.

The parties agreed that the parents were responsible for tuition from the time of the unilateral placement until the hearing officer’s decision in their favor; parents undertake a financial risk when they unilaterally place their child in a private school that the district’s proposed placement will be found appropriate. And the district did not dispute that it was responsible for tuition from the time of the hearing officer’s decision until the district court’s decision in its favor, during which time stay-put applied. But, the district refused to pay for the private placement for the time between the district court’s decision and appellate court’s decision, arguing that stay-put terminated when the district court ruled in its favor.  

The parents took the position that the private placement continued to be the student’s stay-put placement through the conclusion of the appeals, and the district was therefore responsible for funding it until the appellate court’s order. The district court agreed with the parents that stay-put applies through all appeals. And the district court determined that the district remained financially responsible for the stay-put placement even though it had offered the student an appropriate placement and prevailed on appeal. The court recognized that such a result may appear absurd, but the court believed its ruling was compelled by the statutory language of the IDEA.

Courts are split on whether stay-put applies through all judicial appeals or only until the district court has made a decision. The Ridley court followed the Ninth Circuit in holding that stay-put applies through all appeals. But the D.C. Circuit and Sixth Circuit have found that stay-put ends after the district court’s decision. The Seventh Circuit has not addressed the issue directly.

Courts are also split with respect to who bears financial responsibility for the stay-put placement if the district ultimately prevails. Generally, a district must immediately fund a student’s stay-put placement (whether based on the last agreed-to IEP or ordered by a hearing officer finding for parents) rather than waiting until appeals are concluded. So, the situation may arise where the district has funded the stay-put placement, prevails on appeal, and then seeks reimbursement from parents because private placement of the student was unwarranted.

Some courts have held, in line with the Ridley decision, that the district is always responsible for funding the stay-put placement, even if the district’s proposed placement is later found appropriate on appeal. Other courts, including the Seventh Circuit, however, have held open the possibility that the parents would have to reimburse the district in such a situation. District courts in Illinois have come to differing conclusions.

Stay-put is a fact-specific and often complicated concept, especially during appeals or changing circumstances. Work with your attorney to determine the proper stay-put placement for students during due process hearings and appeals.