The William S. Hart Union High School District settled three different cases related to special education services for more than $400,000, according to district staff.
“They are all regarding special education, which means I can’t discuss any of the specifics,” said Kathy Hunter, assistant superintendent of student services. “There are all kinds of laws protecting the rights of individuals with special needs not to have that information disclosed.”
Hunter said in the first settlement the district would reimburse parents $21,000 with an additional $12,000 for attorney fees. In the second settlement, the district would reimburse 110 hours of special education services with an additional $8,000 for attorney fees.
The third settlement was the costliest, Hunter said, as the district would pay $40,000 to parents for incurred costs and up to $82,000 per month through July 31, 2023, with an additional $265,000 for attorney fees.
Approximately $82,000 represents the maximum amount of money that the district may pay up to per month, but the total amount will be defined after district staff verify invoices and additional documents.
Hunter said the money from these settlements is never given directly to parents, but rather toward “compensatory hours” or the special education services that were missing or the students did not receive for whatever reason.
“We go ahead and estimate the cost of those services,” Hunter said. “The money goes to the service provider that provides that service for them. The only thing that really transpires when you’re talking about cash directly is the attorney fees.”
According to Hunter, parents can pursue legal action if they feel there was an omission of services in their child’s individualized education plan that should have been provided or if the parent feels their child needs more than was agreed upon on the IEP.
“Individuals that are identified with special needs are covered through federal law through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” Hunter said. “There’s a whole set of parent rights that goes with every single individualized education plan, or IEP.”
Another cause for legal action could be related to procedure, she added.
“Special education has tons of deadlines of how quickly between that you have to identify students with special needs, how fast assessments need to be done, or how often you have to have an IEP team meeting,” Hunter said. “There are many areas for things to rise to the level where a parent might decide that they want to file a due process claim.”
There’s mediation among parents, attorneys and district staff with the goal of coming to an agreement. However, if a mutual agreement is not met, then the claim is heard in front of an administrative office hearing judge.
The AOJ then makes the determination of the facts of the case — determing whether the case is dismissed or how much a district owes.
“We’re trying to settle because we’ve already had mediation,” Hunter said. “Instead of going to due process, which is even more expensive because we continue to incur costs for both our attorney fees, we’ll try to settle.”
According to Hunter, one effect of the coronavirus pandemic was an increase of parents filing claims for their special education students, not just at the Hart district but at other school districts, too.
“A lot of these things to be honest with you are out of our control,” Hunter said. “When I gave you the COVID example, that’s just out of everyone’s control. If it’s something that we can have some kind of corrective action on then we definitely do immediate meetings, professional development with everyone involved in special education.”