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Judge rules Issaquah School District violated federal disabilities law, orders it to pay more than $160,000
Seattle Times - 4/5/2021
Apr. 5—An administrative law judge has ruled that the Issaquah School District violated a federal law that guarantees educational rights to students with disabilities, and ordered the district to pay more than $160,000 to an Issaquah family who accused the district of failing their now-teenage son.
The boy, who has been diagnosed with autism, ADHD, ADD and learning disabilities, had struggled in school since before he was in fourth grade, according to the judge's final order, issued last month by the state's Office of Administrative Hearings for the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Despite ongoing meetings with his general and special-education teachers, parents and school administrators through the years, he wasn't receiving regular check-ins, evaluations or adequate support at school, and the student — whose parents are withholding his identity — ended sixth grade with D's and F's and plummeting self-esteem and motivation, according to the order.
His parents eventually filed a complaint against the district in August 2018, just before their son started eighth grade. At that point, they had pulled him from Issaquah Middle School, where he was attending, and enrolled him in a Mercer Island private school.
"This case is about a kid who fell through the cracks at the school district, and it got worse and worse," said special education lawyer Diane Wiscarson, who is representing the family in its case against the district. "There came a time when the parents, literally, could not get their kid out of bed to go to school."
In the order, Judge Matthew D. Wacker noted that he has been conducting hearings for 13 years and described it as "frankly inconceivable" the district did not recognize the student's need to be reevaluated.
It's not the first time the Issaquah School District has been accused of violating the IDEA. According to the state's Office of Administrative Hearings, it was also ordered to provide a "remedy for the parents" in another case that wrapped up last November.
Between January 2020 and now, the state has seen 14 cases that resulted in a payment to parents, including ones in Seattle, Bellevue and Shoreline.
According to the judge's ruling, Issaquah failed to keep accurate records, issue IEP (individualized education program) progress reports, provide the parents with proper documentation and provide the student with FAPE (free, appropriate public education) during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 academic years — when the student was in sixth and seventh grade.
The failures mean the district is in violation of the Individuals with Disability Education Act, which makes it illegal for schools to refuse to educate a student because of a disability. All students are entitled to a "free and appropriate public education," and this education must occur in the "least restrictive environment," IDEA states.
IDEA ensures students can receive services until they turn 21, beyond the age of most high school seniors.
The district declined to comment on the ruling, "due to the rules and limitations involving confidential student matters," a district spokesperson said this week.
Under the order, the district was to reimburse the student's parents for the private tuition paid so far, an evaluation they had paid for and transportation to and from the private school, among other things. The district was also ordered to cover any of the student's future tuition costs at the private school, which he'll continue attending until the district can provide free appropriate public education, Wiscarson said.
"He gets to stay there unless and until the school district can do what he needs," she said.
The Issaquah student was found to be eligible for special education in 2008 for developmental delays, when he was about 3 years old, though the district reevaluated him the following year and decided he was no longer eligible, according to the order. In 2011, the district again determined he was eligible for special education, this time for autism.
When he was in fourth grade, his parents started paying for outside tutoring three times a week because he was "having trouble completing his school assignments and homework, was disorganized, and would 'space out' and lose focus," the order says.
He continued struggling to concentrate, communicate, read at grade level and make friends, and after he started fifth grade, his parents noticed a "downward spiral" in his education, the order says.
At an IEP meeting in 2016, a special-education provider and the student's mother agreed on a list of accommodations, including daily access to a computer for writing, modified assignments and grading, extended time for tests, preferential seating near teachers to refocus attention and a check-in by the end of the day.
The student's special-education teacher told a judge that he couldn't remember how he reported the student's goal progress to his family, and that there appeared to be only one report regarding his progress during both his six and seventh grade years.
During his sixth grade year, the student's parents continued spending hours each night with their son on homework, along with outside tutoring. Still, he had ongoing problems staying focused at school and completing homework assignments.
By spring of 2017, the student was struggling with his self-esteem and focus. A neuropsychologist hired by his parents diagnosed him with autism spectrum disorder, severe ADD, a learning disability and communication disorder, and recommended he start specific reading comprehension, computer and math programs, prompting the student's guidance team to add accommodations to his IEP.
It wasn't enough.
"Based on nearly 13 years' experience conducting due process hearings under the IDEA, it is frankly inconceivable to the undersigned (judge) how the District failed to recognize there was something so seriously wrong with the Student during (sixth grade) that he needed to be reevaluated to find out what was happening," Wacker wrote in the order.
By the summer, his parents decided to enroll their son in Yellow Wood Academy, a private K-12 school in Mercer Island.
The student started taking "core" classes at Yellow Wood and attending the middle school for a couple of classes in the morning, until his parents finally pulled him entirely from the middle school.
Since he started exclusively attending Yellow Wood, "the kid practically has straight A's now," Wiscarson said. "He's happy to go to school. He has a very bright future ahead of him."
The student will likely start the 2021-22 academic year at Yellow Wood this fall — at the district's expense — and then "we'll see what happens from there," she said.
She added that, as a mother of a child who requires special education, she knows it's "devastating" to watch your student failing in school and feel unable to help.
"It's really hard to watch as a parent," she said. "And you're doing everything you can. You're getting tutors, you're going to doctors, anything anybody says you should try you're willing to try."
Wiscarson said she hopes the judge's order will remind other parents in Washington of their rights when it comes to public education.
"(The student is) a college-bound kid now who is no longer feeling worthless and having zero self-confidence," she said. "On an individual level, I think that what the parents were able to do for him, that the district was not, completely changed the trajectory of his life."
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