Grafton district ordered to pay student’s private school tuition

School system faces six-figure bill after judge finds it failed to properly educate teenager with learning disabilities
Ozaukee Press staff

Accused by a student’s mother of deceiving her while trying to “slide” her son who has learning disabilities through the school system, the Grafton School District has been ordered to pay the student’s $78,850-a-year tuition at a private boarding school by an administrative judge who concluded the district failed to properly educate the student.

Ruling that the district did not provide the student a “free and appropriate public education” as it is required to by federal law, Wisconsin Administrative Law Judge Sally Pederson ruled in a decision released last week that the district must pay the student’s tuition for last school year and this year — a total of $155,860 — at Brehm Preparatory School, a boarding school for students with learning disabilities.  

The district must also pay travel expenses related to the student’s education at the school about 450 miles from Grafton in southern Illinois, which his mother estimated will be nearly $10,000 for the two school years. 

In addition, the student’s mother is pursuing reimbursement from the district for her legal expenses, which to date total $55,000, she said.

“The district’s treatment of this student certainly violated the law,” Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick, a Madison civil rights attorney and special education law expert who represented the student, said. 

Referring to the tuition and travel costs the district must pay, Spitzer-Resnick said, “That’s the consequence of Grafton failing to meet the needs of this student. Had they met those needs, they wouldn’t have had to pay as much.”

Grafton School Supt. Jeff Nelson declined to comment on the ruling this week but said, “We’re still looking at the merits of all our options and deciding whether to appeal or not appeal.”

Pederson’s decision is a victory for the student’s mother who for years battled the district over her son’s education before withdrawing him from Grafton High School in August 2018 after his sophomore year and enrolling him in Brehm Preparatory School.

The woman, who filed a request for a due process hearing with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction in January, said the Grafton School District failed to provide her son with adequate special education services, then tried to “slide him through the system” by having teachers essentially complete writing assignments for him and giving him passing grades in high school courses that required writing when his ability to write was that of a third or fourth-grader.

“It was just a battle for years,” she said. “Every time I would question something, they ignored me.

“They would go to any length to deceive me and say my son was doing just fine when he wasn’t.”

The woman said she and her son realized he wasn’t doing just fine.

“For years, he came home from school crying, saying he wished he could just be like other kids,” she said.

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

In her decision, Pederson noted the student is smart, with an IQ score in the high-average level, and excels in math and science. But diagnosed with attention and anxiety disorders, the student, who according to experts exhibits signs of dysgraphia, a neurological disorder affecting written expression, and dyslexia, struggles with writing as well as organization.

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. 

By the time the student was a freshman at Grafton High School, his IEP called for him to receive 20 minutes of speech and language services twice a week, which an expert who testified during the due process hearing that spanned five days in March and April described as “not at all” sufficient to help him. 

That 20 minutes of instruction twice a week was cut in half the following year despite the fact the student continued to struggle, Pederson noted in her decision.

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.

She requested a review of his IEP, but no revisions were made. Then, beginning in November, she asked repeatedly for the district to evaluate his writing. An assessment completed six months later determined a sample paragraph the student submitted was written at a third to fourth-grade level.

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 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.

“If he had been writing  at grade level, or even below grade level on a consistent basis, one would assume that his writing could have properly been included in determining his overall grade, as it was the norm in the class,” Pederson wrote in her decision.

At about the same time, the student’s mother said, she was reading samples of his writing saved as Google Docs when she thought, “This doesn’t sound like (my son’s) writing.

“Then he went click, click, click with the mouse and I saw all the work the teacher had done.”

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.

Pederson agreed that the student’s mother “over-reacted” by characterizing the editing as criminal, but wrote in her decision, “A lay person’s review of some of the student’s assignments and written exams with the editing history shown on Google Docs could reasonably lead a person to believe that the case manager had, indeed, done considerably more writing than the student did on some assignments and written exams.”

  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 IEP and special education and related services offered the student allowed him to make only de minimus progress in most of the areas where he required special education....” she wrote in her decision. “Based on the credible evidence on the record, I cannot conclude that the student’s IEP was reasonably calculated to enable him to make progress appropriate in light of his unique circumstances.”

The district argued that it should not have to pay for the student’s tuition at Brehm Preparatory School because it is not an appropriate school for him and that his mother’s decision to place him there was unreasonable.

Pederson disagreed, citing the testimony of Brehm Preparatory School teachers, who said the student is making progress, and the student’s own assessment of his education.

“The student testified that he has received a lot of help with his writing at (Brehm), but the teachers there do not write for him,” according to the decision.

The district also argued that the real reason the student’s mother transferred him out of the district was because Grafton administrators refused to fire her son’s case manager despite her “meritless accusations that the (case manager) fraudulently altered (the student’s) academic work.”

Again, Pederson disagreed.

“There is ample evidence on the record showing that the parent had made her frustration and concern about the student’s lack of progress, particularly in writing, known to the district for years,” she wrote.

In an interview Tuesday, the student said he likes his new school and is looking forward to his senior year. He said he made “visible progress” there in just a year.

His mother agreed, noting that while he began last school year writing at the level of a third or fourth-grader, he finished it writing at a high school level.

“It was huge,” she said.

Spitzer-Resnick said this due process action was rare in that it went to a hearing rather than being settled.

“We attempted to settle the case, but unfortunately the school district was not willing to offer a sufficient amount of money,” he said. 

The case is also fairly rare, Spitzer-Resnick said, because not all parents have the resources to challenge school districts, a fact that is not lost on the mother of the student in this case.

“When I advocated for my son, they ignored me, but unfortunately for them, I had the time to pay attention to my son’s progress in school and I had the resources to do something about it,” she said. “What about all those other parents busting their tails just to put food on the table? What happens to their kids?”  


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