A federal appeals courts in Cincinnati heard arguments Wednesday in a landmark case nearly a year after Hamilton County Schools challenged a federal judge's ruling that it violated federal guidelines to protect students with disabilities.
Last July, U.S. District Judge Judge Curtis Collier ruled 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, when it removed then-second-grader Luka Hyde from Normal Park Elementary School in 2013. Hyde was the first student with Down syndrome at the school, and in April 2013 his teachers and administrators said he would need to spend third grade at the Red Bank Elementary Comprehensive Development Classroom, where he would spend half his days separated from general education students.
But the district said Collier was wrong, saying he misunderstood that the school district was actually acting in Luka's best interest.
"I will note that there has been a misconception that this case is simply about inclusion. It's not. It's also about what a teacher must do when, based upon her professional ethics, she believes that the child truly needs a more specialized placement in order to have a meaningful education," said Hamilton County Schools Attorney Scott Bennett in an emailed statement. "The plaintiffs have argued that, if a teacher makes that decision in error, even if she has done so in good faith, then that error is tantamount to discrimination. We do not believe that is or should be the law."
Whether Luka's mother and father should be reimbursed for the expenses they incurred when they sent him to a private school is also being challenged at the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We believe the judges asked very relevant questions about what the parents' options were if the school system is unwilling to provide FAPE (a Free Appropriate Public Education guaranteed under Section 504), [and] whether reimbursement should continue for all of the time Luka doesn't attend public school," Deborah Rausch, Luka's mother, said in a statement. "Unfortunately, we won't have a ruling for up to six months."
This year, Luka will be an eighth-grader at The Montessori School, the private school he has attended since he was removed from the classroom at Normal Park.
"The Montessori School is the real hero," said the family's attorney, Justin Gilbert. Luka's parents have paid about $7,500 a year for him to attend the school, as well as for a paraprofessional, because he wasn't offered the a fair opportunity in the Hamilton County school district, he said.
The family called the district's decision to appeal ironic as the school board moves forward with a three-year plan for inclusion for students with disabilities in general education classrooms.
Exceptional Education Director Garfield Adams and Cale Horne, the co-chairman of the Chattanooga Inclusive Education Working Group, presented that special education plan at last week's school board meeting. Their plan calls for the end of comprehensive development classrooms, allowing students to attend their zoned school or school of choice, as well as better communication between the district, families and caregivers of students with disabilities.
That inclusion is what Rausch and Greg Hyde, Luka's father, wanted for their son. But Rausch says the plan came along "too late for Luka."