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Judges Deem District's Education Plan for Special Needs Student Insufficient

A panel of judges ruled Thursday that Fair Lawn School District's Individualized Education Program for a preschool student with a brain defect is not compliant with state regulations.

A trio of appeals court judges upheld a prior state Department of Education ruling Thursday that Fair Lawn School District must provide at least 10 hours of home instruction per week to a 4-year-old pre-school student with special needs.

The district had fought the Office of Special Education's original decision, arguing that its individualized plan to provide the student with five hours of home instruction per week, with an additional six hours of related home services, was more than adequate.

Superintendent Bruce Watson said that in this case, as in all others, the district had prescribed a plan its experts determined was best for the child.

"Sometimes we differ in those decisions [with the state], but we believed, and still believe today, that what we have done is more than what the court has said we have to adhere to," he said. "We're doing in excess."

The special needs student, identified in court documents by his initials "T.S.," requires home instruction because he suffers from a brain defect that affects temperature regulation, among other things, and must be in an environment that is 77 degrees or higher to maintain his core body temperature at 96.5 degrees.

T.S.'s parents have objected to the district's Individualized Education Program for their son since it was first developed in November 2010, according to court documents.

Last July, they submitted a complaint to the state's Office of Special Education stating that the district's IEP for their son failed to comply with the state-mandated 10 hours of home instruction per week by a certified instructor, and that they had been improperly excluded from IEP meetings and discussions about their son.

While the OSE determined that the family had not been improperly excluded from IEP meetings or discussions, it did rule that the district must provide 10 hours of home instruction by a certified teacher each week.

The district appealed the ruling, arguing that T.S. was not entitled to 10 hours of home instruction by a certified teacher because his condition represented a "temporary or chronic health condition," rather than a disability. Even if T.S.'s condition were considered a disability — thus entitling him to 10 hours of home instruction by a certified instructor — the district argued the the six hours of speech, occupational and physical therapies it provided T.S. should be counted toward the 10 required hours of home instruction by a certified teacher.

On Thursday, the appeals court judges upheld the OSE's previous ruling that T.S. not only has a disability rather than a "chronic health condition," but also that the district's six hours of "additional guided learning and occupational and physical therapies," per week do not qualify as home instruction by a certified teacher.

Watson said he disagreed with the ruling, but declined to elaborate, citing concern for the student's confidentiality.

He said cost of home instruction did not factor into the district's decision to fight the OSE's original ruling, and that its disagreement with the state was only over the services defined as necessary.

"What we were doing was actually more expensive than what they wanted," said Watson, who declined to elaborate on the cost of the instruction.

Watson said he thought the district did "absolutely the right thing," by contesting the OSE's ruling and that the appeal came at a minimal cost to the district. 

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