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Sunday, October 5, 2014

Must Read: An Annotated List of Notable Decisions by BSEA Hearing Officer Bill Crane



October 3, 2014

BSEA (MA Board of Special Education Appeals) Hearing Officer William "Bill" Crane retired recently. Over the course of his 15 years of distinguished public service, he wrote many decisions likely to be influential for years to come, all of them meticulously crafted, clearly elucidated and informed by an abiding humanity.

Win or lose, no one could accuse him of shallow analysis or faulty logic. That's why his decisions are very likely to endure.

What follows is a partial list of some of his more important rulings, annotated for us by noted special education attorney Bob Crabtree of Kotin, Crabtree & Strong. To read them is to appreciate what a profound and positive influence Crane had on the lives of Massachusetts children in special education.   

In Re: Arlington Public Schools, BSEA # 02-1327, 8 MSER 187 (July 23, 2002).
Provided an extensive, lucid discussion of what constitutes a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) and the elements of proof to demonstrate a district’s failure to provide FAPE.

In Re: Springfield Public Schools, BSEA # 04-4706, 11 MSER 1 (January 18, 2005).

Breaking from the First Circuit’s hard line in Greenland, Crane clarified that a parent’s violation of the IDEA’s notice requirement prior to making a unilateral placement does not absolutely bar the parent from a claim for retroactive reimbursement, as Greenland had held, but instead calls for the hearing officer to exercise discretion, determining whether the district was prejudiced by the lack of formal notice and, if so, reducing or denying reimbursement.

In Re: Fall River Public Schools, BSEA # 05-5383, 11 MSER 242 (December 21, 2005).
In the case of a young Autistic student, Crane incorporated information about what is generally agreed among professionals to be a “window of opportunity” during which a child with Autism is most likely to learn  and determined that a district’s program, though otherwise appropriate, was not sufficiently intensive to take advantage of that “window."

In Re: Nashoba Regional School District, BSEA # 03-0860, 10 MSER 98 (November 12, 2003).
Ruling against a district’s request for an order to produce social worker and therapist records concerning a student, Crane adopted the protocols of civil courts.

He indicated that the district must first establish why it believes that it particularly needs the records – i.e., describe of what relevance and weight such records may be in light of the particular issues to be decided in the case – and then, if that standard is satisfied, that the records must be reviewed by the hearing officer and then released only if the district’s reasons for needing the records outweighs the risk that release of the records might undermine the student’s therapeutic relationship with the social worker or therapist.

In Re: Lunenberg Public Schools and Dept. of Mental Health, BSEA # 05-0799, 10 MSER 518 (December 3, 2004).
Crane held the district to be responsible for providing a residential placement for student with emotional and behavioral needs, rejecting the district’s arguments that it would merely enhance the student’s otherwise sufficient day program.  The key to the determination: that the emotional and educational needs of the student were inextricably intertwined.

“Lunenburg has responsibility to address all of Student’s demonstrated needs, particularly those special education needs which are most severe – in this case, his emotional and behavioral deficits. … [T]he expert testimony was consistent that Student’s emotional and behavioral deficits cannot be effectively responded to on a piece-meal basis.  … [I]n order for the services to be effective for Student, both day and residential components must be provided and they must be provided with a very high degree of communication, collaboration and (ultimately) consistency.”

In Re: Quabbin Regional School District, BSEA # 05-3115, 11 MSER 146 (August 16, 2005).

In this leading decision Crane denied the district’s request to dismiss the parents’ request for an order to provide transitional (non-academic) services where the student had achieved passing grades and MCAS scores sufficient to graduate. 

Crane declared that a student’s passing MCAS scores and grades do not necessarily bar her from ongoing transitional services where the skills to be addressed by those services were at the heart of her IEP and had allegedly not been sufficiently addressed. (See Dracut, below.)

In Re: Norwood Public Schools, BSEA # 06-0214, 11 MSER 161 (August 19, 2005).
In this case Crane joined some, but not all, of the BSEA hearing officers in holding that the BSEA has authority to enforce legally binding settlement agreements.

In Re: Dracut Public Schools, BSEA # 08-5330, 15 MSER 78 (March 13, 2009).
Crane ordered compensatory post-graduation transition services to a high achieving student with Asperger’s Syndrome where the district had failed to address non-academic needs that were essential for the student to advance to secondary education, independent living and/or a vocation.

In Re: Lowell Public Schools and Mass. Dept. of Children and Families, BSEA # 12-1912, 17 MSER 322 (October 19, 2011).
In this case a student had ben provided with a residential program through a combination of school district and the Mass. Department of Children and Families Services (“DCF”) services under a settlement agreement. The settlement agreement had come to an end and DCF had notified the family that it would terminate the residential services.   Crane ordered DCF to maintain residential services pending the resolution of the dispute over the student’s need for those services.

In so ordering, Crane applied the principles of IDEA’s “stay put” requirements to a state agency even though there is no explicit statute that subjects DCF to such a requirement.  We hope to see the BSEA apply that same principle to DMH sometime soon.

In Re: Mansfield Public Schools, BSEA # 1307030, 19 MSER 100 (May 2, 2013).
Crane ruled that the parents’ expert should be allowed to observe a program through a single school day (note that the district put on virtually no evidence to support its reasons for trying to limit the observer to a shorter visit and, if she wanted to see a full day, to require her to make a number of visits until the full program had been seen).

In Re: Boston Public Schools and George, BSEA # 04-2506, 10 MSER 311 (July 30, 2004).
Crane found Boston in violation of IDEA’s requirement that program and placement decisions be made by a validly assembled Team and ordered the district to cease referring ultimate placement decisions to a central office outside of the Team context.

In Re: Triton Public Schools, BSEA # 1400006, 19 MSER 334 (December 18, 2013).
Crane held that the student was eligible for special education services, in spite of student’s success in the classroom and high MCAS scores.  Among other unusual features of this decision, Crane relied in part on the proposition that if the student’s learning deficits (decoding, syntax and morphology weaknesses) were not addressed now, “his foundational skills will not be appropriately developed, thereby substantially limiting his educational potential.” 

He referred to language in IDEA describing its purpose in part as including “developing the student’s individual educational potential: and “prepar[ing] [students] for further education.” The case is a reminder that just getting by as a student may not suffice for FAPE where a student has exceptionally high cognitive potential.

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Bill Crane is now "Of Counsel" to Massachusetts Advocates for Children, where he continues to advance the interests of the children of the Commonwealth and blogs occasionally.

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