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Steven R.F. v. Harrison School District No. 2

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

May 28, 2019

STEVEN R.F., a minor by and through his mother Carrie Fernandez, Plaintiff - Appellee,
HARRISON SCHOOL DISTRICT NO. 2, and various of its elected and appointed representatives in their official capacities, Defendant-Appellant.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Colorado (D.C. No. 1:17-CV-00629-RBJ)

          John R. Stanek, Anderson, Dude, and Lebel, Colorado Springs, Colorado (William K. Dude, Anderson, Dude, and Lebel, Colorado Springs, Colorado, and W. Stuart Stuller, Caplan & Ernest, LLP, Boulder, Colorado, with him on the briefs), appearing for Appellant.

          Michael C. Cook, Cook Varriano, P.C., Colorado Springs, Colorado, appearing for Appellee.

          Before BRISCOE, LUCERO, and PHILLIPS, Circuit Judges.


         In this appeal, Defendant-Appellant Harrison School District No. 2 asks us to reverse the district court's ruling that it violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) by failing to provide Plaintiff-Appellee Steven R.F. with a free appropriate public education. Because we conclude that the case is moot, we dismiss this appeal, vacate the district court's ruling, and remand with instructions to dismiss as moot.


         The IDEA provides federal funds to states for educating children with disabilities, guaranteeing disabled children between the ages of three and twenty-one access to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400(d), 1412(a)(1). A FAPE "emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet [the child's] unique needs." Id. § 1400(d). A child's individualized education program (IEP) governs how a school will provide him or her a FAPE. See id. § 1414(d)(1)(A). The IEP is a written statement developed in a meeting attended by the student's parents, teacher, and a special education professional that summarizes the student's abilities, outlines goals for the student's education, specifies the services the student will receive to achieve those goals, and establishes criteria to evaluate the student's progress. Id. § 1414(d)(1).

         The IDEA also requires state and local educational agencies receiving funding under the Act to "establish and maintain procedures . . . to ensure that children with disabilities and their parents are guaranteed procedural safeguards with respect to the provision" of a FAPE. Id. § 1415(a); see also Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311-12 (1988). For example, the IDEA requires that a child's parents be notified by the school district of any proposed change to the child's educational placement. 20 U.S.C. § 1415(b)(3). It also requires that the parents be permitted to participate in discussions relating to their child's evaluation and education. Id. § 1414(d)(1)(B)(i). And it requires states to allow parents the opportunity to bring a complaint about "any matter relating to the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of [their] child, or the provision of a [FAPE] to such child." Id. § 1415(b)(6).


         Steven R.F. is a fourteen-year-old boy with severe autism. [App., Vol. II at 438.] In 2013, the District agreed to place Steven at the Alpine Autism Center, a private out-of-district facility in Colorado Springs. [Id.]

         In 2014, the District proposed to move Steven from Alpine to a public school called the School of Excellence (SOE) for the 2014-2015 schoolyear. [Id.] Steven's mother, Carrie Fernandez (Mother), objected and filed a state complaint asserting various IDEA violations. After an investigation, the State Complaint Officer (SCO) agreed with Mother and issued a written decision (2014 SCO Order). As a remedy, the SCO ordered, among other things, that the District could not change Steven's placement until: (1) staff members from any new placement "proposed by" the District "have observed [Steven] . . . at [Alpine] to understand the nature of [his] educational and behavioral functioning" and (2) the District "convenes an IEP meeting, facilitated by a neutral facilitator (not employed by the School District) . . . and develops an IEP that includes a description of placement sufficient to allow [Mother] to understand what is being proposed." App., Vol. II at 618. Steven remained at Alpine for the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 schoolyears. [See id. at 442.]

         On March 29, 2016, and April 5, 2016, the District held Steven's IEP meeting for the 2016-2017 schoolyear. [Id. at 444.] The IEP meeting was facilitated by the District's school psychologist, Michelle McFall. [Id.] Toward the end of the meeting, after agreeing on required aspects of the IEP, the attendants discussed what facility Steven would attend. [Id. at 446.] Amy Lloyd, the District's special education coordinator, proposed three alternatives: Roundup Fellowship, Alpine, and the SOE. [Id.] The team decided on the SOE, over Mother's objection. [Id.] At the time of the IEP meeting, no staff members from either the SOE or Roundup had observed Steven at Alpine. [See generally id. at 446-48.]

         After the meeting, McFall prepared a "Prior Written Notice of Special Education Action" summarizing the IEP Team's discussions and decisions. [Id. at 447; accord App., Vol. III at 676-79.] The notice identified the SOE as Steven's placement for 2016-2017, but did not identify ...

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