Earlier this month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit determined that a school district must provide extended school year (ESY) services in a student’s least restrictive environment (LRE). Although this case is important because it finds that districts have an affirmative duty to ensure that a student is placed in an ESY program in his/her LRE, the case does not change the premise that ESY services and settings should be determined on a case-by-case basis based on the student’s individual needs.
In T.M. ex rel. A.M. v. Cornwall Central School District, T.M. attended a private mainstream kindergarten classroom during the school year. According to T.M.’s IEP, he also required ESY services in order to avoid regression during the summer. T.M’s school district only provided ESY in a self-contained classroom and proposed to place T.M. in that program for the summer. T.M.’s parents rejected the district’s proposal and enrolled T.M. in a private mainstream summer program. T.M.’s parents subsequently filed a due process complaint, disputing the sufficiency of T.M.’s IEP and, specifically, his placement in the district’s self-contained ESY program. After administrative proceedings at the state level, the parents filed suit in federal court. The district court granted the district’s motion for summary judgment, agreeing that the district did not violate IDEA by placing T.M. in its self-contained ESY program.
On appeal to the Second Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Connecticut, New York, and Vermont, the school district argued that the LRE requirement applies to ESY placement only if the district has a less restrictive placement available but then excludes a disabled student from that placement. Because it did not have a mainstream ESY program, the district asserted that it did not violate the LRE requirement.
The Second Circuit rejected this argument, concluding that “[u]nder the IDEA, a disabled student’s least restrictive environment refers to the least restrictive educational setting consistent with that student’s needs, not the least restrictive setting that the school district chooses to make available.” The court clarified that a school district is not required to create a new mainstream program to serve one child. However, if a district does not have a mainstream summer program, it must look at private options or mainstream programs operated by another public entity. While a district is not required to offer every conceivable ESY environment, the court determined that it must offer “an appropriate continuum of ESY placements” and place a student in his/her LRE within that continuum, based on the student’s needs. The court noted that the LRE requirement still must be balanced against the educational benefits the individual student would receive and must be decided on a case-by-case basis.
This decision is not binding in Illinois or within the jurisdiction of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Nonetheless, the case is an important caution to school districts throughout the country because it recognizes an affirmative duty to provide ESY in the LRE and to look to private and other public options if a school district does not have an appropriate program available for a particular student. ESY placements, like school-year placements, are to be made on a case-by-case basis, considering a continuum of options.