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Sneitzer v. Iowa Dep't of Educ.

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 7, 2015

Renee Sneitzer, Plaintiff - Appellant
Iowa Department of Education; Cedar Rapids Community School District; Grant Wood Area Education Agency, Defendants - Appellees

Submitted February 10, 2015

Appeal from United States District Court for the Southern District of Iowa - Des Moines.

For Renee Sneitzer, Plaintiff - Appellant: Curtis Lane Sytsma I, Curt Sytsma Law Office, Des Moines, IA.

For Iowa Department of Education, Defendant - Appellee: Meghan Lee Gavin, Assistant Attorney General, Attorney General's Office, Des Moines, IA.

For Cedar Rapids Community School District, Grant Wood Area Education Agency, Defendants - Appellees: Andrew J. Bracken, Miriam Deborah Van Heukelem, Ahlers & Cooney, Des Moines, IA.

Before BYE, BEAM, and BENTON, Circuit Judges.


BEAM, Circuit Judge.

Renee Sneitzer's daughter (K.S.) was a student in the Cedar Rapids Community School District (the district). K.S. is diagnosed with a form of high functioning autism known as Asperger Syndrome. Renee appeals the district court's[1] denial of her petition for review of an order issued by an administrative law judge[2] in an Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § § 1400 et seq., (IDEA) case against the district. Because the district provided K.S. with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), we affirm.


K.S. was 16 at the time of the proceedings before the ALJ, and in addition to Asperger Syndrome, she has also been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, mood disorder, adjustment disorder, and Tourette's syndrome. These diagnoses significantly affect K.S.'s communication, socialization, and behavior. K.S. was a freshman and sophomore at Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, respectively, and resided with her step-father and Renee within the district. K.S. is considered " twice exceptional" meaning that she is both gifted academically, with a full scale IQ of 123, and on the autism spectrum. She excels in math and science; successfully took several advanced placement classes at Kennedy, and she was involved in extracurricular activities including show choir,[3] the school musical, and volleyball.

Due to her diagnoses, K.S. was identified as an individual with a disability under the IDEA, and has received special education and related services under an individualized education program (" IEP" ). Further, K.S. participated in the autism spectrum disorder (ASD) program beginning in sixth grade and throughout her remaining years in the district. Kathy Klein taught the ASD class and provided specifically-designed instruction for high functioning ASD students. As relevant to this appeal, K.S.'s IEP was reviewed and revised in January 2011, to cover the period from January 2011 to January 2012. The IEP contained three behavior goals for K.S.: (1) a goal to help her follow directions; (2) a goal to help her develop appropriate and respectful behavioral responses to peers and adults; and (3) a goal to enable her to better understand social rules and behavior expectations. The district also provided K.S. with one-on-one paraprofessional support throughout the entirety of the school day. K.S. could return to the ASD classroom any time during the school day, and also could use the ASD classroom to take tests in a quiet environment. Despite all of K.S.'s social difficulties, and in keeping with her gifted intellectual abilities, the record shows that K.S. remained in the general education setting for the majority of her day, maintained a GPA above 4.0 (because of advanced placement classes), and ranked near the top ten percent of her class while at Kennedy.

As the ALJ aptly noted, the beginning of the year 2012 was very traumatic for K.S. and her family. While her family vacationed over Christmas break on a Caribbean cruise, K.S. was raped by two young men on the cruise ship. Immediately after the rape, Renee consulted with K.S.'s medical team regarding how to assist K.S. in overcoming this trauma. K.S.'s pediatrician prescribed a course of medication for K.S., and K.S.'s mental health providers recommended getting her back into a routine as quickly as possible. They suggested asking K.S. what she wanted to do, and her first request was to get back into show choir. Thus, shortly after the semester resumed from winter break, K.S. returned to class and to participation in the school's Proté gé show choir in January 2012. The annual review of K.S.'s IEP had been scheduled for January 2012. Due to the unusual circumstances, Renee agreed to postpone the annual review in lieu of an interim IEP, which was dated January 11, 2012. The interim IEP maintained the same specially designed instruction and support services from the prior IEP. However, several additional accommodations were also implemented in January to ease K.S.'s transition back to school after the rape. For instance, one of the accommodations was that she was allowed to reduce or makeup her assignment load for certain classes, allowing her to work at her own pace. Klein testified that the understanding in January 2012 was that a full-scale review and revision would be performed on the IEP in September 2012 for the fall semester, after everyone had a better understanding of how K.S. had healed and hopefully recovered from the trauma.

Because state regulations mandate that an interim IEP not be in place for more than 30 school days, the IEP team met again on February 10, 2012. Renee still was occupied with criminal proceedings and other issues surrounding the rape, and agreed that the meeting could be held without her. She and K.S.'s father also waived any procedural objection to the IEP being reviewed without their participation. Due to the lack of parental participation and the understanding reached in January that it would be best for K.S. to hold off a comprehensive meaningful review until September 2012, the IEP team made the affirmative decision to retain the existing IEP until the fall of 2012.

K.S. experienced a number of unsettling social interactions with peers and other emotional disappointments in the Spring 2012 semester. After a show choir performance on January 7, 2012, K.S. reported to her mother that a male member of the show choir held a knife to her throat and said, " I'm going to cut you, bitch." Renee immediately confronted the student and one of the directors. The student indicated that he had found a pocket knife in one of the drama rooms, but denied approaching K.S. with the knife. The director admonished him for handling a knife, the incident was investigated by the principal, and no further action was taken against this student. Also during the spring of 2012, K.S. auditioned and was selected for a role in the high school musical, " Fame." On April 19, opening night of the musical, K.S. and another student were involved in an altercation backstage wherein K.S. accused the student of " poking" her repeatedly. Other students who were backstage reported that the student had tapped K.S. on the shoulder asking her to move out of the way of performers leaving the stage following a scene, and K.S. responded by slapping the student and using foul language. The principal initially threatened to suspend K.S. for one night of the musical over the incident, but eventually determined that K.S. would not be suspended as long as a paraprofessional ...

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