published Friday, November 1st, 2013

Hamilton County schools tell their side in special education lawsuit

Hamilton County Department of Education
Hamilton County Department of Education
Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Hamilton County Schools officials say 10-year-old Luka Hyde had just maxed out in his regular education classroom at Normal Park Museum Magnet School.

Multiple school officials testified that Luka, who has Down syndrome, was unable to keep up with the regular curriculum, even with an array of supports and modifications, such as special education teachers and a one-on-one assistant.

The school system wrapped up its defense Thursday in a due process case in which Luka's parents argued he was denied a federally mandated appropriate education. Deborah Hyde argued her son was academically successful up until last school year, when Luka was in second grade. But school officials said he was performing poorly and thus recommended he move to a more intensive special education-specific classroom at another school.

"I think at this point the gap is too large," Stephanie Higgs, Luka's second-grade teacher, testified Wednesday.

The Hyde case is the first such due process suit filed against the school system since 1999. Hyde's parents are asking administrative law judge Marion Wall to order the school system reimburse the family for the cost of his attending the Montessori School. The Hydes moved Luka there this fall after the school system decided to place him at Red Bank Elementary's Comprehensive Development Classroom, or CDC, a more intense program for special-needs students.

Hyde said the move to Red Bank would give her son no chance to participate in the regular school curriculum and he would not be on a track to make any meaningful academic progress.

"How is that appropriate?" she said.

Hyde said Luka's teachers last year were inexperienced and she argued that the school system could offer no evidence that the CDC program would guarantee any progress.

"We weren't asking Hamilton County Schools for anything special or unique," she said.

But school leaders asserted that the CDC classroom would give Luka a chance to learn at his own pace. There would be fewer distractions and a CDC teacher would have the flexibility to reteach -- a strategy they said is key to his advancement.

School system attorney Scott Bennett said teachers exhausted many resources, strategies and modifications over the last four years at Normal Park trying to educate Luka in regular classrooms. But he said progress was "frightfully poor," and the need for change was urgent.

"At some point in Luka's career, we ran into the question of lost opportunity," Bennett said. "Regretfully, your honor, that's already happened."

The judge said he hopes to make his decision within 30 days. He first must pore through thousands of pages of documents and several videos.

Bennett couldn't immediately say how much the district spent defending the case. It took days of preparation and caused him and other officials to put off other tasks, he said. The three-day proceeding also pulled several Normal Park teachers out of school to testify.

The last such due process case cost the school system more than $2 million to defend, according to newspaper archives. In that case, the parents of Zachary Deal, an autistic child, argued that schools officials denied them due process by refusing to consider their request to use a particular program that they said would benefit their son.

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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