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District loses special ed lawsuit

The Mercer Island School District may be forced to pay more than $100,000 for failing to provide proper special education to a dyslexic student, according to a recent federal court decision.

Educators at MISD set goals that were too low for the girl and then failed to meet those, according to the decision by U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman.

The girl’s parents have requested more than $100,000 to pay for the girl’s private education at a Massachusetts boarding school for dyslexic students. A lower court will determine how much compensation the parents receive. The district must pay parents’ legal expenses.

According to the suit, MISD education plans failed to include details about how the girl would be helped. The district also assumed that after high school, the girl would attend technical school or community college, when her parents hoped to prepare her for college. Educators also failed to properly involve the parents in the girl’s individual education plan (IEP) process, according to Pechman.

The district, therefore, failed to follow the spirit and the letter of the relevant law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Pechman wrote.

“Parents are correct that the failure of the IEPs to focus on progressing (the girl) toward self-sufficiency (i.e. independent living) and her desired goal of post-secondary education represents a failure to confer the benefit contemplated by the IDEA,” Pechman wrote.

Superintendent Cyndy Simms said she was “surprised” by the decision, but declined further comment, saying she was aware of some ongoing conversations.

Pechman’s ruling comes after the parents appealed a lower court decision in favor of the district, which claimed to have provided adequate special education by providing accommodations including tutors to read and write for her.

“This allowed her to ‘progress’ through the material, but is totally at odds with the IDEA goals of self-sufficiency and independent living,” Pechman wrote. “Employing accommodation and other compensatory strategies without increasing a student’s skill level does not represent compliance with the IDEA; it is not sufficient to simply ‘escort’ an educationally challenged student through the school system.

“The district contends, without citation to expert authority, that accommodations are a lifelong requirement for ‘incurable’ diseases like dyslexia. While some form of accommodation may well be a long-term component of (the girl’s) functioning, the emphasis on it in the district’s educational plans... is at odds with the focus and purpose of the IDEA.”

According to Pechman, the lower court judge and the school district relied heavily on outdated standards from the 1970s to defend the special education program the district offered. The 1997 IDEA was designed to address problems of low expectations and inadequate teaching methods under older special education statutes, she said.

“(The IDEA) is such a significant departure from the previous legislative scheme that any citation to pre-1997 case law on special education is suspect,” she said.

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