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Greg Deborah Hyde stand with their son, Luka, at Riverview Park in Chattanooga in this 2013 file photo.

A federal judge's ruling that the Hamilton County Department of Education failed to follow federal guidelines when removing a student with Down syndrome from a general education classroom could have significant implications for the families of students with special needs.

The case, which has been winding through the court system for more than two years, revolves around Luka Hyde, a former Normal Park Museum Magnet student who has Down syndrome. At the end of his second-grade year in 2013, Hamilton County teachers and the school's former principal Jill Levine, who now serves as the district's chief academic officer, decided Luka needed to be moved to Red Bank Elementary's comprehensive development classroom.

In that classroom, Luka's interactions with students who do not have disabilities would be greatly limited, and the curriculum would be more focused on developing life skills than academic aptitude.

Luka's parents, Deborah and Greg Hyde, say that environment is not in the best interest of Luka, and they claim the Hamilton County Schools illegally segregated him because of his disability.

Federal Judge Curtis Collier agreed with the Hydes, saying Hamilton County Schools should not have moved Luka out of his classroom at Normal Park, that the comprehensive development classroom was "more restrictive than necessary" and that "[Luka] could receive a benefit from mainstreaming."

"The record is abundantly clear: [Luka] could, and did, make behavioral and academic progress in a regular-education classroom at Normal Park during kindergarten, first grade and second grade," Collier wrote in the ruling filed last week.

The ruling could have implications for other parents who believe their children with disabilities could benefit from inclusion in regular classrooms. It also 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 court filings and testimony, the Hamilton County Department of Education, represented by Scott Bennett, argued the comprehensive development classroom was the best placement for Luka. They said he struggled to keep up with grade-level work, and that such a classroom would provide him with more personalized instruction and support.

Collier said the staff at Normal Park was "operating with a sincere and heartfelt desire to what what was in [Luka's] best interest." But they were focused on whether Luka was meeting the same academic standards of his classmates and not whether he was making progress and benefiting from inclusion with non-disabled peers, Collier said.

The additional services Luka would receive in the comprehensive development classroom, which school district employees said would benefit him, also feasibly could be provided in a regular classroom, Collier concludes.

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 writes in the ruling. The law also requires that handicapped students be educated alongside non-handicapped children to the maximum extent appropriate.

Expert testimony presented a persuasive argument that educating children with Down syndrome in mainstreamed classrooms typically provides a greater benefit than a segregated setting, Collier determined, and that being at Normal Park was beneficial for Luka.

Despite Normal Park and the Hamilton County Department of Education making the wrong decision about where to educate Luka, Collier said the Hydes are not entitled to reimbursement for tuition at the private school where he has attended since being removed from Normal Park.

Luka is enrolled at The Montessori School, where court testimony states he is making progress.

Though that educational environment is less restrictive than the comprehensive development classroom, the Hydes failed to prove that it was a reasonable alternative, Collier said, and so they are not entitled to reimbursement for tuition.

Because the case is ongoing, neither Bennett or Levine could comment. The Hydes and their attorney, Justin Gilbert, also were unable to comment.

Both sides can file new motions in the case for summary judgment by Dec. 21, and the case is scheduled for trial March 27.

It is expected that the Hydes will next address their claims of discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and could be entitled to compensation.

The Hydes also filed a lawsuit against the Tennessee Department of Education.

Last year the state settled with the Hydes for $185,000, which did not impact the lawsuit against Hamilton County, a separate defendant.

The state's settlement follows a previous ruling that found the state did not have an adequate administrative complaint process for parents, which is required by federal law.

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

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