Judge orders Hamilton County Schools to pay $103,274 in student disability rights case

Deborah Rausch talks about special education beside her son, Luka Hyde, at the home in Chattanooga on Friday.

The Hamilton County Department of Education has to pay a family roughly $103,000 in a landmark student disability rights case, per a federal judge's order Tuesday.

U.S. District Court Judge Curtis Collier ruled the department needs to reimburse Luka Hyde's family $103,274 for five years of private education costs, including a tutor, putting a near-finish to the heavily litigated 2014 case. Though Collier has yet to rule on a request asking the department cover another $385,000 in attorneys' fees, the window to appeal other issues to the U.S. Supreme Court has closed.

photo Luka Hyde reacts with joy as his mother, Deborah Rausch, talks about special education and the school he now attends from the couch in their sitting room at home in Chattanooga on Friday.

"It is official," his father, Greg Hyde, said in a statement. "Our case has now become the law of the Sixth Circuit-Tennessee, Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky."

Department attorney Scott Bennett said he believes the district's insurance carrier will cover the reimbursement. He referred a reporter to Superintendent Bryan Johnson for further comment but he could not be reached Friday through his spokesman.

Over the last five years, Hyde's case has passed through an administrative court, Chattanooga's federal court and the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals as attorneys argued whether Hamilton County Schools violated a federal guideline that protects students with disabilities when it sent then-second-grader Hyde to a Red Bank Elementary program in 2013 because of his Down syndrome.

Under that program, Hyde would spend half his days separated from general education students. Fearing their son's placement would prevent him from making academic progress, Luka Hyde's family filed a disability segregation suit against the department and the Tennessee Department of Education in 2014 after an administrative judge ruled against them the year before.

In 2015, the state settled for $185,000 with the Hydes. But the department continued to question whether officials were discriminating if they believed they were acting in Luka Hyde's best interests. In 2016, Collier determined the department violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by placing Luka Hyde in an environment that was "more restrictive than necessary."

The Times Free Press reported in 2017 that about 80 percent of students with intellectual disabilities attending Hamilton County Schools were separated in comprehensive development classrooms for most of the school day, according to state data. Earlier this year, the district said it wanted to address systemic issues in special education by developing a plan that called for an end to comprehensive development classrooms.

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 previous rulings in the case. The law also requires schools to educate students with disabilities alongside those without them to the maximum extent appropriate.

Through Bennett, the department appealed Collier's findings to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. Hyde's family did, too, when Collier also ruled they were not entitled to a reimbursement for their son's private education at The Montessori School.

In August, the federal appeals court affirmed Collier's ruling but said the Hydes should be reimbursed. It sent the case back to Chattanooga, where attorneys have since sparred over the cost.

While the Hydes estimated they'd spent about $108,000, Bennett and other department attorneys said the family had given different amounts in previous testimony and asked Collier not to grant it. Department attorneys also argued they shouldn't have to pay for the tutor because the tutor wasn't an official employee of The Montessori School. Hyde's lawyer, Justin Gilbert, said that distinction was irrelevant because, either way, the tutor was helping Hyde.

In a follow-up affidavit, a Montessori School official estimated the reimbursement was $103,274 and chalked up the roughly $4,200 discrepancy to the school charging parents for items such as "student lunches, student supplies and studio charges."

In his order, Collier rejected the department's arguments and settled on $103, 274, reasoning the Hyde family would've paid for those items if their son was in a public school, too.

Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at zpeterson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.