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KTMC Partners with PILCOP to Represent Students with Disabilities in Special Education Law Project

April 1, 2015

Recently, several KTMC attorneys, including Andy Zivitz, Kimberly Justice, Matthew Goldstein, and Meredith Lambert, partnered with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (“PILCOP”) as part of PILCOP’s special education law initiative, the Philadelphia Project.

By way of background, PILCOP is a public interest law firm that helps individuals and organizations in the Philadelphia area challenge laws, policies, and practices that perpetuate discrimination, inequality, and poverty. The objective of PILCOP’s Philadelphia Project is to secure a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) for children with disabilities in the School District of Philadelphia (the “School District”). To this end, PILCOP frequently brings due process complaints in the administrative hearing setting against the School District for failing to fully comply with its legal duties under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) and other laws requiring it to effectively and inclusively educate students with special needs. 

In its first pro bono case under the Philadelphia Project, KTMC served as co-counsel to PILCOP on behalf of the family of a five-year-old child with severe autism, seeking relief through the administrative hearing process against the School District for denying the child FAPE in violation of IDEA. Specifically, the complaint in this case alleged that when the family attempted to transition the child from Early Intervention (“EI”) services to kindergarten in the School District at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, the School District failed to offer the child a classroom environment with adequate autistic support services that could meet the child’s particular behavioral needs and guarantee the child’s safety. 

When KTMC became involved in the matter in January 2015, the child unfortunately still remained out of school. Accordingly, PILCOP and KTMC sought immediate temporary relief from the administrative hearing officer under IDEA’s “stay-put” provision, which required the School District to keep the child in his or her current educational program during the pendency of the litigation. Because the child here had not previously been enrolled in the School District, this meant that the School District was obligated to render “comparable services” to those that the child had received under the last agreed-upon Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) from the EI program. 

At an evidentiary hearing on February 12, 2015 before the administrative hearing officer, the parties litigated over the issue of whether such “comparable services” obligated the School District to provide the child with a one-to-one assistant. The School District contended that it was not required to do so because the child’s previous IEP did not expressly call for a one-to-one aide. PILCOP and KTMC argued that, under applicable legal authority, the determination of what constituted “comparable services” was not limited to the four corners of the prior IEP; rather, it involved the consideration of a variety of factors relating to the services that the child had been receiving previously in the EI program. As such, PILCOP and KTMC introduced compelling documentary evidence and testimony from the child’s EI teacher indicating that the EI program had effectively provided the child constant one-to-one supervision in order to address certain behavioral and safety concerns. 

On March 2, 2015, the administrative hearing officer granted the child’s requested stay-put relief, mandating that the School District install a one-to-one assistant in the child’s kindergarten classroom until it had developed a new IEP for the child. Following this favorable decision, the child began attending kindergarten at the School District and was responding positively to the new classroom environment. The parties reached a settlement in the case shortly thereafter. Under that settlement, the School District agreed to the provision of compensatory educational services for the amount of time that the child had been out of school due to the School District’s denial of FAPE, as well as the reimbursement of reasonable attorneys’ fees. As part of KTMC’s voluntary support for PILCOP, KTMC will donate its portion of attorneys’ fees to PILCOP.

In sum, KTMC is pleased with the outcome of this case and looks forward to taking on new pro bono matters with PILCOP in the near future.