Judge: Hamilton County Schools violated federal laws in special education case

Deborah, right, and Luka Hyde talk Tuesday, April 18, 2017 in the River Gallery Sculpture Garden.
Deborah, right, and Luka Hyde talk Tuesday, April 18, 2017 in the River Gallery Sculpture Garden.

A federal judge on Monday ruled the Hamilton County Department of Education violated multiple federal guidelines protecting students with disabilities when it removed a second-grader with Down syndrome from Normal Park Elementary School in 2013.

In the ruling, federal Judge Curtis Collier said the school district violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, a federal civil rights law prohibiting discrimination against individuals with disabilities.

The case, which has been winding through the court system for more than three years, revolves around Luka Hyde, whose parents, Deborah and Greg Hyde, argue he shouldn't have been removed from Normal Park and segregated from his peers in a comprehensive development classroom at Red Bank Elementary.

The Hydes' attorney, Justin Gilbert, said Collier's ruling is important for children in Tennessee and across the country.

"The right to belong, the right to inclusion, and the right to avoid exclusion are all American civil rights," Gilbert said Monday. "We will look forward to being able to work with our county, not against it, so that together we make these rights a reality for kids with special needs."

Collier's decision about the ADA and Section 504 is based upon a previous ruling, as he determined in November 2016 that Hamilton County Schools violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by placing Luka in an environment that was "more restrictive than necessary," saying that "[Luka] could receive a benefit from mainstreaming."

Federal law states that students with disabilities must make reasonable progress toward individualized goals aligned in some way with grade-level standards, and they are not required to "keep pace with the curriculum," Collier wrote in a previous ruling in this case. The law also requires schools to educate students with disabilities alongside those without them to the maximum extent appropriate.

In the comprehensive development classroom, Luka's interactions with students without disabilities would be limited, and the curriculum would be more focused on developing life skills than academic aptitude. Decades of research show that including students with disabilities in regular classrooms with appropriate support benefits all students.

But about 80 percent of students with intellectual disabilities attending Hamilton County Schools are separated in comprehensive development classrooms for most of the school day, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Education. And standardized testing data from 2015 shows that in each tested subject, students with disabilities trailed their nondisabled peers by about 30 percentage points.

Collier's rulings could have implications for other parents who believe their children with disabilities could benefit from inclusion in regular classrooms and could force the Hamilton County Department of Education to rethink its approach to special education. About a dozen parents have told the Times Free Press the district is swift to segregate children into comprehensive development classrooms when it is not best for the child's development.

In Luka's case, court documents and testimony show that Hamilton County teachers and Normal Park's then-principal Jill Levine, who now serves as the district's chief academic officer, decided Luka needed to be moved from the school because he was struggling to make academic gains and they thought a comprehensive development classroom would provide him with more personalized instruction and support.

Collier writes in the most recent ruling that the district violated federal guidelines by removing Luka from the least-restrictive environment appropriate, but that the school system's actions were not the result of discriminatory intent.

Scott Bennett, the Hamilton County Board of Education attorney who represents the district in the case, did not return a request for comment Mondayafternoon.

In the ruling, Collier says the school district and the Hydes have seven days to bring up any issues they may have with his ruling. Collier did not address whether the Hydes are entitled to financial reimbursement.

Since being removed from Normal Park in 2013, Luka, now 13, has attended The Montessori School and will be enrolled in middle school classes this fall.

Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at krainwater@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @kendi_and.