Decision against district upheld in tuition lawsuit

Judge stands by 2019 ruling that Grafton must pay $260,000 to mother whose son was denied ‘free and appropriate education’
By 
JOE POIRIER
Ozaukee Press Staff

The Grafton School District must reimburse a mother for tuition at a private Illinois boarding school that specializes in learning disabilities, as well as legal fees and other costs — an amount that tops more than $260,000, her lawyer said — after a federal judge in Milwaukee issued a ruling July 8.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman upheld a 2019 decision by Administrative Law Judge Sally Pederson, who ruled the district failed to provide the student a “free and appropriate education” as required by state and federal law.

“It’s definitely a victory. Obviously, the bigger victory would be parents of children in special education don’t need to sue their districts to get a quality education for their child,” said Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a Madison civil-rights attorney and special-education law expert who represented the family.

“Hopefully, this decision will encourage school districts to do just that, so they don’t have to be on the losing end of expensive litigation, and children will ultimately be winners.”

Spitzer-Resnick said the district owes the mother for tuition, travel expenses, attorney’s fees and interest.

“What the school district did in appealing was waste a lot of time and a lot of money,” he said.

Grafton School Supt. Jeff Nelson said the district does not have a comment on the decision. 

Adelman’s ruling comes after the mother accused her son’s high school teachers of completing his assignments, lying about his progress and passing him in classes when hadn’t completed the work. 

Ozaukee Press is not naming the woman or her son to protect his identity.

According to court documents, the student was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, anxiety, dyslexia and other disorders, but Adelman in his decision noted the student is smart, with an IQ score in the high-average level, and excels in math and science.

When the student was in sixth grade, he was identified as a candidate for special-education services and an individualized education program, or IEP, which is required for most students with learning disabilities and must be reviewed annually, was created. 

Years of tension between the student’s mother and the district over the services her son was receiving and his progress came to a head the first semester of his sophomore year when she noticed her son wasn’t completing writing assignments and had received failing or near-failing grades on some of his work.

Despite his writing ability and the fact he had 44 missing assignments by the end of the school year, the student received a C in American literature and composition the first semester of his sophomore year and a C- the second semester.

During the 2019 hearing, the student’s special-education case manager and American literature teacher testified that because of the student’s reluctance to write, they decided not to factor writing into his grade, even though it was one of five components in the class.

The case manager and teacher also testified that they thought the student made progress during his sophomore year, albeit with significant help from them, and was capable of writing at grade level, an assessment the administrative judge questioned.

At about the same time, the student’s mother said, she was reading samples of his writing saved as Google Docs when she thought didn’t sound like her son’s writing. After her son showed her the revisions and additions his case manager had made to his writing, the woman asked the district to investigate and reported the matter to authorities, characterizing it as forgery and fraud.

The district did not fire the case manager for what was described as an accepted teaching strategy and law enforcement officials determined there was no cause for a criminal investigation.

In August 2018, the mother moved her son to Brehm Preparatory School in Carbondale, Ill., where tuition is $78,000 a year. The school is 450 miles from Grafton and the mother estimated it cost nearly $10,000 in travel expenses for two school years. She said she had to borrow against her home to cover the costs.

Five months later, she sought an administrative hearing in an effort to recoup those expenses.

Last July, Pederson ruled the district failed to provide a free and appropriate education in the 2017-18 school and to offer an IEP reasonably calculated for the 2018-19 school year. Citing a 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires school districts to offer IEPs designed to enable students with learning disabilities to make “merely more than de minimus,” or minimal, progress, Pederson concluded the Grafton School District fell short of that requirement.

The district filed suit in federal court seeking a review of Pederson’s decision. The district argued that mother failed to cooperate in developing the IEP. The district also argued Pederson made numerous errors of fact and law in making her decision and that the preparatory school was not an appropriate placement because it does not offer instruction in core subjects such as science and social studies.

But Adelman concluded that Pederson was correct when she ruled the district did not provide the student with an appropriate education. Adelman did, however, reduce the amount of tuition the district owes by $12,500 to account for the cost of a five-week tutoring program the district paid for during the summer of 2018.

“The key factor was that we won the administrative decision earlier in a very well-written decision and that the federal review is limited to whether or not the underlying administrative decision was a clear error or not,” Spitzer-Resnick said.

“That’s a very high bar for the school district to have thought they could get over and have it overturned. Time after time, the judge said there is no clear error here.”

The district could appeal Adelman’s decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

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