Can our special education laws be abused? Here’s Exhibit A.

The court summed it up thusly:

The parents’ vendetta against school staff, particularly [the math teacher] and [the housemaster], has continued for five years and cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees, and consumed significant time and attention from school officials.  Based on the evidence in the record, it appears that Lincoln-Sudbury staff were patient and accommodating, and complied with Dr. Gaughan’s orders in their entirety.  By contrast, the parents made unreasonable and unjustified demands, used inflammatory language, and otherwise harassed school officials (and the hearing officers) caused unnecessary delays, and increased the cost of the proceeding. 

This was about a very high achieving student who got a concussion from playing field hockey and missed a couple of weeks of school.  The district accommodated her injury to help her catch up with missed school work.  Eight months after the injury her “intensive math” class teacher recommended that next year she should take a less rigorous, but still advanced, math class.  The parents, claiming that the school failed to accommodate the girl, pulled her out of public school, placed her in an elite private school that offered no special education services and sought reimbursement of tuition due to an alleged “Child Find” violation.  The girl sailed through the last two years of high school at the private school and was Acing her way through George Washington University at the time of the court’s decision.  Does that sound like a “Child Find” violation to you?  I didn’t think so.

The court awarded $188,996 in attorneys’ fees to the school district.  The court held that the  parents’ request for a due process hearing was frivolous and brought for an improper purpose.  Thus the school was entitled to recover fees for the costs of defending the case.  The district did not recover as much as it sought, but still…..$188,996 is not peanuts.

Our special education laws represent a noble effort to fulfill our moral obligation to students with disabilities and their parents.  Unfortunately, those laws can be abused.  It’s good that the law allows for schools to recover their damages in these rare cases. But what a waste. 

The court’s opinion in Lincoln-Sudbury Regional School District v. Mr. and Mrs. W. was issued on January 25, 2018 and can be found at 2018 WL 563147. The award of attorneys’ fees is summed up at 2018 WL 6584118. Both decisions come from the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts.