published Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

State judge will decide Hamilton County Schools disability law dispute

Luka Hyde
Luka Hyde
Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Normal Park school in Chattanooga
    Photo by Kelly Wegel

A state judge soon will determine whether the Hamilton County Schools system provided adequate services for a Chattanooga student with Down syndrome. Deborah Hyde has filed a due process claim with an administrative law court accusing the school system of violating federal disability law — Hamilton County’s first such claim in more than a decade. Hyde takes issue with the decision to move her son Luka, a third grader, from his neighborhood school and place him in a more specialized program at another school.

After four years at Normal Park Museum Magnet, a team of school officials determined Luka needed more intensive support and recommended his transfer to a Red Bank Elementary Comprehensive Development Classroom, or CDC, a separate classroom for students with more intensive needs. But the family disapproved of the move and instead placed their child in a private school program with special education support.

“I don’t believe you should take children with special needs and lump them all together,” Hyde said. “Because then they don’t have peers that challenge them and model for them. Then you start limiting their role in society. And these kids become the others.”

The case is set to be heard by Administrative Law Judge Kim Summers at the end of the month. The school system and the parents were unable to reach consensus in earlier resolution attempts. And in this case, the school system and the family have very different ideas about the child’s capabilities and needs.

“It’s very difficult to settle a case where the district and the parents have a fundamentally divergent perspective of what the child needs,” said school board attorney Scott Bennett.

In court documents, the school system maintains it worked to provide the child with supports in a general classroom setting, but that he “simply lacked the prerequisite skills to succeed in the second grade regular education curriculum.”

Normal Park Principal Jill Levine said she couldn’t discuss specifics of the case.

“What I can say is that educators at Normal Park and throughout Hamilton County work hard every day to meet the different needs of individual students,” she said. “And teachers are committed to providing the best education and educational setting for each student regardless of ability.”

School officials say they start with the premise that students should be served in a regular classroom setting with whatever help they might need, such as an educational assistant, pull-out work with other teachers or speech and language therapy. But some students’ needs are so pronounced that a dedicated special education classroom is more appropriate, officials say.

Hyde has a fundamental disagreement and thinks her son should have remained in his Normal Park class, where he received help from special education teachers, an occupational therapist, a speech therapist and an assistant. Hyde said such “mainstreaming,” educating disabled students alongside students without disabilities, is more representative of life beyond school.

“When he leaves school, there’s not a separate church he’s going to go to as a student with a disability,” she said. “There aren’t separate banks. There aren’t separate restaurants. It’s just not normal.”

The Hyde family went through a similar struggle with Knox County Schools, where they fought to have their child placed in a regular education kindergarten classroom. Hyde made her struggle public in a local newspaper story along with other Knox County families who were calling for educational inclusion.

The family reported overall satisfaction with Normal Park after Luka started school there in August 2009.

“He’s already talked about so many friends and teachers,” Hyde told the Knoxville News-Sentinel at the time. “We know we made the right choice.”

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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