In addition to being ineffective, disciplining a student for conduct that is caused by, or has a direct and substantial relation to a student’s disability, constitutes disability-based discrimination. Further, subjecting a student to a disciplinary removal that is based on the student’s disability can deprive a student of a free, appropriate public education when it constitutes a change in placement based on something other than the student’s educational needs. A manifestation determination review (MDR) is a procedural safeguard that is hard wired into IDEA to prevent this from occurring by requiring districts to review the behavior of students who have been identified as disabled before imposing a potentially discriminatory discipline consequence.
But what about students who might be disabled, but have not yet been evaluated and determined eligible for services under IDEA? As explained in the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) recently issued Letter to Nathan, the obligation to conduct an MDR isn’t dependent on eligibility, but arises as soon as a district is “deemed to have knowledge that a student has a disability.”
Given the emphasis that has recently been placed on referring and evaluating students with suspected disabilities here in the Lone Star State, administrators may be understandably concerned about the number of children who might be entitled to an MDR. Thankfully, “deemed to have knowledge” is statutorily defined and does not necessarily apply to every student who has exhibited a child find trigger. Pursuant to 34 CFR § 300.534(b), a school is deemed to have a basis of knowledge that a student has a disability so as to require an MDR, if before the behavior that precipitated the disciplinary action occurred:
- the parent of the child has expressed concern in writing to supervisory or administrative personnel of the district, or a teacher of the child, that the child is in need of special education and related services;
- the parent of the child actually requested an evaluation of the child for purposes of determining eligibility; or
- the teacher of the child, or other district personnel, has expressed specific concerns about a pattern of behavior demonstrated by the child directly to the district’s director of special education or to other supervisory personnel.
Additionally, 34 CFR § 300.534(c) specifies three instances in which a district is considered to not have knowledge that a student has a disability:
- the parent has been offered, but not allowed an evaluation under IDEA;
- the parent has refused services under IDEA; or
- the child has been evaluated under IDEA and determined to not qualify.
In addition to clarifying when an MDR must be conducted, Letter to Nathan also addresses the more confusing question of how a district should go about determining whether behavior is a manifestation of a suspected disability. Noting that IDEA does not allow a district to postpone an MDR pending completion of an initial evaluation and/or development of an IEP, OSEP explains that an MDR is not contingent on reviewing an IEP, but rather requires a district to “review all relevant information in the child’s file, including any teacher observations and any relevant information provided by the parents, to determine if the conduct in question was caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to, the child’s disability.”
In the case of a child who has not yet been evaluated, this relevant information would include “the information that served as the [district’s] basis of knowledge that the child may be a child with a disability under IDEA, such as concerns expressed by a parent, a teacher or other [district] personnel about a pattern of behavior demonstrated by the child.” Based on this information, the district would be charged with determining whether the conduct in question was caused by, or had a direct and substantial relationship to the child’s suspected disability.
The manifestation determination review is a vital procedural safeguard that protects students from disability-based discrimination that could deprive them of a free, appropriate public education. That said, we certainly recognize that MDRs are (understandably) frustrating to administrators who already feel spread too thin and difficult to explain to members of the school community concerned with a perceived undermining of accountability. If you have questions or concerns about OSEP’s latest guidance or complying with the MDR mandate in general, the attorneys at Leasor Crass, P.C. are ready, willing, and able to help.