Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas. D.C. DOCKET NUMBER W-91-CV-276. JUDGE Walter S. Smith, Jr.
Before Goldberg, Garwood, and Wiener, Circuit Judges.
Todd L. is a bright seventeen year-old boy who has been diagnosed as suffering from various disorders of affect, behavior, learning and speech. Although Todd is quite intelligent, the special difficulties he faces contribute to a reduced ability to tolerate frustration and to adapt to external stressors. As a result of his disability, Todd is entitled to special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA," formerly the Education of the Handicapped Act, "EHA").*fn1
As a condition of federal funding, IDEA requires states to provide all children with a "free appropriate public education," 20 U.S.C. § 1412(1), with the statutory term "appropriate" designating education from which the schoolchild obtains some degree of benefit. See Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 200, 102 S. Ct. 3034, 3047, 73 L. Ed. 2d 690 (1982). IDEA requires that children with disabilities be educated to the maximum extent possible with nondisabled children in the least restrictive environment consistent with their needs,*fn2 a concept referred to as "mainstreaming." See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(5); Rowley, 458 U.S. at 202, 102 S. Ct. at 3049; Sherri A.D. v. Kirby, 975 F.2d 193, 206 (5th Cir.1992). In order to assure that all children are given a meaningful opportunity to benefit from public education, the education of children with disabilities is required to be tailored to the unique needs of the handicapped child by means of an individualized education plan (IEP). 20 U.S.C. § 1401(a)(20).
Complying with IDEA, Todd's local public school district (the Teague Independent School District, "TISD"), in collaboration with Todd and his parents,*fn3 developed an IEP for Todd. Consistent with IDEA's requirement that special education services be tailored to the unique needs of the child, the IEP emphasized one-on-one instruction in specially equipped classrooms, and reduced the length of Todd's school day from seven hours to two hours. Todd's school day was reduced not for the convenience of school staff, but in response to Todd's inability to tolerate a longer school day without becoming unduly frustrated and discouraged, leading to regression rather than academic progress.*fn4 The school psychologist specifically found that a shortened school day would be necessary, at least temporarily, to assure that Todd's inability to tolerate frustration did not lead to his giving up on academics altogether and dropping out of school. Though Todd was educated separately from his nondisabled peers for part of the school day, the school arranged for Todd to have contact with nondisabled peers. The goal of Todd's four-year IEP was to provide him with a nonthreatening environment in which he could continue to make academic progress while gradually learning to tolerate a lengthened school day and increased stress. The record indicates that the authors of Todd's IEP fully expected that ultimately Todd would be reintegrated into "the mainstream" of regular classes at the TISD school, and would graduate.
Todd made behavioral and academic progress under his IEP.*fn5 In fact, Todd performed so well in a computer training project during the 1988-89 school year that he was asked to produce a brochure for the local Chamber of Commerce. To mark the occasion of the publication of the brochure, Todd's picture appeared in the local paper along with an article about his project.
Unfortunately, during a period in 1988 when Todd had not been enrolled in school at TISD, Todd's behavioral problems had brought him into contact with the juvenile Justice system. On March 20, 1989, more than a year after this brush with the law, Todd was placed on probation for his earlier misconduct.
Although Todd's parents had indicated approval of Todd's academic and behavioral progress under his IEP during the 1988-89 school year, once Todd was placed on probation, Todd's parents decided that it was imperative that Todd receive more supervision. Todd's parents sought to have the school district lengthen Todd's school day or place him in a residential facility at public expense.*fn6 At a meeting held on March 29, 1989, TISD officials agreed to consider Todd's parents' request, but reminded Todd's parents that there was copious evidence that Todd was benefitting from the special education services he was receiving from TISD. Two days later, before the school district had had time to review the possibility of alternative placements for Todd, his parents unilaterally removed him from public school and obtained his admission to The Oaks, a highly restrictive psychiatric hospital,*fn7 where he remained over his own objection for fourteen months.
As promised, TISD officials toured The Oaks. On April 18, 1989, an Admission, Review and Dismissal ("ARD") meeting was held. At this ARD meeting, TISD officials discussed their findings with Todd's parents. TISD officials informed Todd's parents that they considered The Oaks a placement of last resort, and that they believed there were less restrictive alternatives (including the TISD school's special education program) from which Todd could obtain educational benefit. Nevertheless, Todd's parents decided that Todd would remain at The Oaks.
During the first two months Todd spent at The Oaks, Todd's daily educational programming was limited to two hours. Todd was confined to a locked ward, monitored twenty-four hours a day, and deprived of contact with nondisabled children. He was referred to not as a "student," but as a "patient," because the primary focus of the institution was not education but psychiatric treatment. After two months, Todd's school day was lengthened. Nevertheless, toward the end of Todd's stay at The Oaks, that facility's staff recommended that his school day again be shortened to two hours; the same length that Todd's school day had been at the TISD public school.*fn8
When Todd's parents sought reimbursement for the costs of Todd's institutionalization, the TISD refused on the grounds that Todd had been able to benefit from the TISD program and that The Oaks placement was more restrictive than necessary to provide Todd with educational benefit. Todd's parents appealed to a special education hearing officer,*fn9 who found that Todd's parents should be reimbursed. The special education hearing officer found that Todd's parents had established that Todd's local public school was an inappropriate placement while The Oaks was an appropriate placement. According to the hearing officer, there was no evidence that Todd had obtained any benefit from special education at the TISD school. Contending that this factual Conclusion was clearly erroneous, and that the hearing officer did not take into account the relative restrictiveness of The Oaks and the TISD school's special education program, the school district appealed the hearing officer's decision to federal district court.*fn10 Although the district court indicated that it gave "due weight" to the decision of the hearing officer, the district court concluded, after reviewing all the evidence from the administrative proceeding and hearing additional evidence, that the TISD public school placement was appropriate, and that The Oaks placement was inappropriate. Therefore, the district court reversed the hearing officer's decision to grant Todd's parents reimbursement for the cost of Todd's institutionalization at The Oaks. Todd's parents appeal the district court's decision. We affirm.