The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit recently held in T.M. v. Cornwall Central School District, — F.3d —, 2014 WL 1303156 (April 2, 2014), that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s requirement that special education students be educated in the “least restrictive environment” (“LRE”) applies not only to a student’s school-year program, but also to extended school-year (“ESY”) services.  Therefore, if a student requires ESY services, the school district must offer a continuum of alternative placements and conduct the same LRE analysis in determining what placement is appropriate for the student.  In T.M., the student, who has autism, received his school-year education in a “mainstream” setting with supports.  The district did not operate a mainstream ESY program and it offered the student ESY programs that contained only students with disabilities.  The parents enrolled the student in a private mainstream summer program and sought reimbursement from the district.

The Second Circuit concluded that the district failed to consider the appropriateness of a mainstream ESY program for the student and, accordingly the student’s IEP was substantively deficient.  The court held that “the IDEA’s LRE requirement is not strictly limited by the range of ESY programs that the school district chooses to offer.  Instead, the LRE requirement applies in the same way to ESY placements as it does to school-year placements.”  The court noted that, while districts are not required to create certain ESY placements within the district, they may need to offer placement options at other public or private schools.  On the other hand, the court recognized that a district’s obligation to provide a continuum of ESY placements is not limitless.  The court explained that “a school district is not required to offer every conceivable ESY environment that might be a particular student’s LRE. . . . A school district that offers an appropriate continuum of ESY placements, and places a student in his or her LRE within that continuum, will not be liable just because another imaginable environment might be less restrictive for that student.”

Ultimately, the court remanded the case to the district court to determine whether the parents’ unilateral summer placement was appropriate and, therefore, whether tuition reimbursement was appropriate.  However, this case clarifies the responsibility of school districts to take LRE requirements into account when planning and placement/IEP teams determine where to implement a student’s ESY program.  Specifically, school districts may need to consider how they might offer ESY programs in a mainstream setting with students without disabilities.

Read the full case here.