published Thursday, February 27th, 2014

Hamilton County Schools accused of over-segregating disabled students in lawsuit

A lawsuit filed in Davidson County Chancery Court alleges that Hamilton County Schools segregates intellectually disabled students from regular classrooms nearly twice as much as the national average.

The lawsuit was filed by Justin Gilbert on behalf of the Hyde family of Chattanooga. Gilbert is a partner at Gilbert Russell McWherter, a law firm specializing in employment and insurance law with offices across the state.

The lawsuit does not contain the plaintiffs' names, only their initials for privacy reasons. However, last fall the family waived their rights to privacy in administrative court for the initial due process trial of the case, and their identity is publicly known.

According to the suit, 5 percent of Hamilton County's intellectually disabled students are present in regular classrooms 80 percent of the time, as opposed to the national rate of 17.4 percent. Additionally, only 12 percent of disabled students spend more than 40 percent of the school day in the regular classroom in Hamilton County, in contrast with 44.1 percent nationally, and 36.5 percent statewide, the suit states.

Scott Bennett, the attorney for Hamilton County Schools, said that because the family requested confidentiality in the legal complaint, he didn't think it would be appropriate to comment on the case.

However, Bennett did say that the school district had filed papers to remove the case from Davidson County Chancery Court to the federal courts in Nashville, and from there to the federal courts in Chattanooga.

Gilbert said the case highlights "unnecessary segregation of the intellectually disabled."

"Segregating a second-grade child, who is high functioning, to a [comprehensive development] classroom with no report cards, no homework, and loss of all his friends is morally wrong," he wrote in an email. "We must do better as a society."

Deborah Hyde family protested the transfer of her son Luka, who has Down syndrome, from Normal Park Elementary School to Red Bank Elementary. Last year she filed a due process claim -- the school system's first since 1999 -- with an administrative law court that accused Hamilton County Schools of violating federal disability law.

Although the family reported initial satisfaction with Normal Park Museum Magnet after Luka started school there in August 2009, a difference of opinion arose between the parents and school officials on whether the boy's educational goals were being properly served by the school.

The Hyde family believes that Luka would be better served in a regular classroom setting with additional help as needed -- and as mandated by federal law, according to the lawsuit -- from special education teachers, an occupational therapist and a speech therapist.

This type of education is more representative of life beyond school, where there are not separate churches, banks or restaurants for those with disabilities, Deborah Hyde said last fall. Separating Luka from the regular classroom would restrict his ability to be social with nondisabled peers, and would not allow for meaningful academic progress, she said.

However, the administrative law judge ruled in favor of the school system, and said that the family failed to prove its claims that the school system wasn't implementing their son's individualized education program. School officials also testified that Luka was unable to keep up with the regular curriculum, even with additional supports.

But, according to the suit, requiring Luka to achieve at the same level as his peers in the regular curriculum is unreasonable, and Luka is supposed to meet the academic achievements outlined in his IEP.

Additionally, according to the complaint, Luka was the first child with Down syndrome to be educated at Normal Park, which caused school officials to misunderstand his learning profile.

Because of the school district's decision to move Luka to a classroom setting his parents found unacceptable, Luka was enrolled the Montessori School.

The suit claims that the Hyde family has had to sell their home to pay for Luka's educational needs.

The original due process suit only sought attorneys' fees, as well as reimbursement for tuition costs, as the family believed the school was unwilling to provide the appropriate mandated education. Now, however, the Hyde family is also requesting monetary damages against the school district for the "emotional distress, humiliation [and] embarrassment suffered" by the family, according to the lawsuit.

The complaint also demands a jury trial.

Contact staff writer Alex Harris at aharris@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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