School division loses autistic child’s case

Published 10:45 pm Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Suffolk Public School System cannot force the parents of a 6-year-old autistic child to put their son in a special program for autistic students, a hearing officer ruled this week.

The officer’s ruling came a week after the conclusion of due process proceedings brought by the school system against Vincent and Kimberly Rodgers when the Rodgers’ refused to agree to their son’s placement in the autistic children’s curriculum of the Southeastern Cooperative Education Program.

The parents wanted their son, who is not being named because he is a minor, to be placed at a transitional kindergarten program at Elephant’s Fork Elementary School.

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After a series of meetings and a mediation that failed to produce an agreement, the school division filed the due process proceedings, meaning it had to prove the SECEP program was the least restrictive environment where the child could receive a free and appropriate public education.

The system failed to do so, according to the decision issued Monday by the hearing officer.

The issue at stake was whether the SECEP program was a proper placement – in other words, a placement where the student could continue to improve his academic, social and communication skills – and if it was the least restrictive environment where he could improve.

The hearing officer, Sarah Smith Freeman, ruled that the student’s current placement, at Northern Shores Elementary School, is the most appropriate placement at this time.

“There is no showing that all of the above cannot be achieved in Student’s current educational placement,” the decision states. “Further, there is little evidence that Student presents ‘a disruptive force’ in class.”

About two dozen people testified during the five-day hearing, including the student’s parents, other relatives, classroom teachers, music teacher, occupational therapist, T-ball coach, expert witnesses, SPS special education personnel, and Superintendent Milton Liverman.

Witnesses for the parents testified that they do not believe the child needs a more restrictive environment. However, witnesses for the school division said they believe the SECEP program would be best.

“The (school division) has not proven that the child may not be educated in the current setting with supplementary aids and related services. The (school division) has not proven that the child’s disability is so severe that he cannot be educated in his current placement with appropriate supplementary aids and related services,” says the decision. “The (school division) does not prevail on this issue. Segregated placement in a regional day school is not the most appropriate placement for Student at this time. The least restrictive environment in which Student will receive a (free and appropriate public education) is the current self-contained center based placement, with supplementary aids and related services, at Northern Shores Elementary School.”

Cheryl Poe, a special education advocate who represented the Rodgers family in the case, said she was pleased at the ruling, but still has concerns.

“For me, testimony after testimony after testimony clearly showed that Suffolk Public Schools did not make an honest attempt to provide him with appropriate supports and services to be successful,” Poe said. “They set him up to fail, then said, ‘He can’t do this, let’s kick him out.’”

However, Poe still is concerned about what will happen now, because the hearing officer did not order a placement, only identified Northern Shores Elementary School as the least restrictive environment.

“We have requested an IEP (individual education plan) meeting,” Poe said.

The student’s mother, Kimberly Rodgers, said the hearing was frustrating, but she is somewhat pleased at the outcome.

“All we ever wanted from this was to have our son have the same opportunity to be educated with his peers in the least restrictive environment,” Rodgers said. “I really felt like it was a power struggle and didn’t have anything to do with my son and his capabilities.”

The school division has the option to appeal the case to the state circuit court or a federal district court, meaning the case may not be over yet.