Doozy of a Decision from Highland Park ISD

The decision in the case of R.S. v. Highland Park ISD is long, detailed, and a ringing endorsement of the good work of the staff in the district. There are no villains in the story of this case. The court commended the parents for “acting as fierce advocates for their child and consistently pushing for challenging and meaningful goals to be included in his IEP.” The court was equally complimentary of the school staff, noting that “the record is replete with examples and evidence of the extraordinary efforts the District undertook to collaborate and communicate with [the parents].” The boy at the center of the dispute was described by his parents as a “sweet kid, fun-loving, with a great sense of humor.” The teachers described him as “inquisitive, delightful, a happy child and a hard worker.”

The boy displayed all those positive qualities despite his significant disabilities. He had a visual impairment, cerebral palsy, West Syndrome. He was non-ambulatory and a non-verbal communicator. He required an adult nearby at all times to assist him with mobility, repositioning, toileting, feeding and physical participation in various activities. He had low muscle tone and did not have “protective responses to prevent injury if he falls.” Which he did.

The falls were a big part of the case. In his years at HPISD, the student had five injuries due to falls. Two of those occurred while his mother was at school. But when all of the evidence was presented, the special education hearing officer offered this summary:

The numerous accidents and minor injuries R.S. suffered while attending District schools were unfortunate and troubling; they are also somewhat understandable in the sense that R.S. is an outgoing, friendly, and active child who has multiple physical challenges.

The numerous accidents and minor physical injuries suffered by R.S. at District schools did not threaten R.S.’s health in a manner that undermined his ability to learn and did not rise close to the level of denying R.S. a FAPE.

The federal court agreed with that analysis.

As is often true in special education litigation, this case presents a story of good people, seeking a common goal, looking at the same information and coming to very different conclusions. “Consequently,” the judge wrote, “it appears to the Court that there was disconnect and disagreement between [the parents] and HPISD staff regarding R.S.’ progress, regression, and current ability levels.”

Disconnect indeed. Repeatedly, both the hearing officer and the court noted that the allegations made by the parents were not supported by evidence in the record. Here’s an example:

In early 2012, [the parents] assert that R.S. was sent home with dried feces on his wheelchair after he experienced a significant accident at school. The evidence in the record, however, supports the [hearing officer’s] finding that [elementary] school staff notified R.S.’s mother and asked if she wanted to pick up R.S. from school after the accident, cleaned R.S., had him seen by the school nurse, gave R.S. a fresh change of clothing, cleaned his wheelchair as best as possible, and kept R.S. out of his wheelchair for the remainder of the day.

Did the district work hard to try to meet the high expectations of the parents? You bet. In the student’s 3.5 years in the district there were 15 ARD meetings. The hearing officer had found that the “District went to extraordinary lengths to include [the parents] in R.S.’s entire educational program and satisfied all collaboration requirements.” The federal court agreed with that analysis and added this:

In addition to ARDC meetings, the HPISD staff collaborated with [the parents] and considered parental input during “monthly collaboration meetings.” The District sent draft IEP documents to Plaintiff’s parents prior to his ARDC meetings, and incorporated their feedback into R.S.’s IEPs.

At least one of Plaintiff’s parents participated in every ARDC meeting. In order to collaborate with [the parents] the District typically scheduled R.S.’s ARDC meetings on Fridays so that [the father] could travel in from out of town, even though Fridays were not the usual ARDC meeting day at [the school]. The ARDC meetings lasted up to several days. The ARDC meeting documentation reflects extensive parental input and requests for consideration, which almost always resulted in input being incorporated into R.S.’s IEP.

The hearing officer ruled for the district in this one, and now the federal court has affirmed that decision. The decision does not break new ground in the law, but is noteworthy as an example of “extraordinary efforts” by public school staff to meet the high expectations of parents who were “fierce advocates” for their son. I’m pleased to let you know that lawyers in our firm’s Irving office represented the district in this case. Nona Mathews took the lead in the due process hearing and Meredith Walker handled the federal court appeal. We’re delighted to be able to help the courts see the good and hard work done by our clients.

The case of R.S. v. Highland Park ISD was decided by the federal court for the Northern District of Texas on March 8, 2019. We found it at 74 IDELR 10. The parties also litigated claims under Section 504. We’ll tell you about that next week.


Tomorrow: How do you feel about cursive?