Free and Appropriate Education?

6 Oct

I’m a bit short of time this morning so couldn’t give this story the time it deserved. The following is a cut and paste job from Fox Houston:

Dreams brought Kenneth Chibuogwu to America and in time determination brought many of those aspirations within reach.

“I worked hard. I came to this country with nothing,” says Kenneth.

It is a country this father and husband have deeply embraced, along with its core convictions.

“If you don’t stand up for something, you’ll fall for anything,” he says.

And what could be more worthy of battle than his first born son, Chapuka, “Chuka” for short a child who will spend each and every day of his life challenged with autism?

“This child was a gift from God,” insists Kenneth.

Guaranteed by federal law a “free and appropriate education” for their son, Kenneth and wife Neka hoped the Alief School District would prove an able partner in helping Chukka reach his potential.

It didn’t happen.

“When I went there I saw things no mother would want to see,” says Neka her visits to Chuka’s middle school.

“My wife went to observe, found him squashed in the corner and nobody cared,” says Kenneth.

“There was nothing I could do but cry because I was so shocked that such a thing could go on in this country,” added Neka of the repeated conferences with Alief administrators ending in stalemate.

In Texas when parents and educators can’t agree on whether a school district is giving a disabled student all that the law demands the state offers a procedure called “due process” where a sort of education judge listens to all the evidence and decides the issue.

In May of 2007, using much of their life savings, Chuka’s parents filed their case.

Instead of seeking compromise, Alief launched a full-blown legal counterattack alleging the case was “improper” and that the Chibuogwus “harassed” district employees during meetings.

“Nobody in this household harassed the school district. I feel that they harassed us,” insists Neka.

“These people had been railroaded, these people had been maligned,” says special education advocate Jimmy Kilpatrick who represented Chuka and his parents.

Drained and discouraged, Kenneth and Eka dropped their due process case and Chuka never returned to class.

The conflict could have ended there, but Alief Superintendent Louis Stoerner and then board president Sarah Winkler had other plans.

The District sued the economically distressed parents of a special needs child for every penny of the district’s legal expenses, an amount, at the time approaching $170,000 dollars and now estimated at close to a quarter million.

“What I feel is that they are trying to bully me for asking for a chance for my son¿s life,” says Kenneth.

Alief taxpayer and watch dog Bob Hermann sees the lawsuit as senseless and mean spirited.

“I don’t know why we would spend taxpayers money to try and punish somebody who doesn’t have the money and are probably going to win at the end of the day anyway,” says Hermann.

Those who represent special needs families suspect a larger more sinister scheme.

“What they are trying to do is send a chill down parent’s spine about advocating for their children,” says Louis Geigerman, president of the Texas Organization of Parents, Attorneys and Advocates.

“Lets set some examples, lets hang a few of them at high noon right out here in the middle of the town square and show you what we do to people who want to advocate for their children,” adds Kilpatrick.

“If I don’t fight them, you know they are going to do it to other parents,” says Kenneth Chibuogwu.

This past April after three long and expensive years of legal warfare a federal judge here in Houston issued his ruling. Alief I.S.D. was wrong and had no right under the law to collect legal expenses from Chuka’s parents.

Instead of accepting the ruling, superintendent Stoerner and apparently the Alief School board have chosen to risk even more taxpayer dollars and appeal the ruling to the 5th Circuit.

At a board meeting, by phone and by e-mail Fox 26 news has repeatedly asked the Alief decision makers “Why” and have yet to receive an answer.

A district spokeswoman promised comment after the appeals court rules.

“We’ve almost lost everything trying to keep this up,” says Neka.

“What basically there are trying to do is run me and my family on to the street,” says Kenneth

While school expenses are generally available for public inspection Alief has attempted to block our opens records request.

FOX 26 News has however obtained invoices which show the district’s taxpayers have compensated Erik Nikols and his Law firm Rogers, Morris and Grover as much as $12,000 in a single month for waging the three-and-a-half year courthouse campaign against the Chibuougwu’s.

The meter, presumably, is still running.

“I know a lot of people have gained from this, a lot of people have been enriched by this,” says Neka.

As for Chuka, he’s now fourteen, attends no school and for five years hasn’t received a single minute of the free and appropriate public education that is his right

Their child, his parents insist, has been thoroughly left behind.

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9 Responses to “Free and Appropriate Education?”

  1. LAB October 6, 2010 at 13:08 #

    School is only recently back in session, but I’m already noticing an uptick in school-related hostility towards the special needs population. The other day a former teacher told me that, “Special needs kids are annoying because they want everything.” He went on to say that school services should not cater to autistic kids because “All kids are ‘special needs.'” This is not an uncommon attitude. People believe the hysteria about our “failing schools,” and they’re looking for someone to blame. Autistic kids are an easy target, because we all hear in the the media about how much assistance many of these kids need to succeed. Parents of NT kids, as well as some teachers and school principals, think special needs kids are sapping resources and holding back the rest of the school. I think this is how they justify treating kids and parents as described in this story. The parents “harassed” the school because their child wasn’t getting needed services, but the school apparently didn’t think the child deserved services. You’d be amazed by how many people would take the school’s side in this case.

  2. Leila October 6, 2010 at 17:45 #

    My heart breaks for the Chibuougwu family.

    In the U.S, special needs children are treated very differently depending on the State, School District or even the school. In our case, we have a very supportive School District and State agency, but we had to move my son to another school in the neighborhood last Spring, due to the lack of support by his teacher and the principal at the school that we are assigned to by the residential boundaries. The other school is only five minutes away by car, but what a difference in attitude towards mainstreaming children with special needs. Coincidentaly or not, his tantrums in classroom went down to zero in the new school. Plus he’s helping increase the school’s score because he’s acing on Reading and Math tests.

  3. Sullivan October 6, 2010 at 18:06 #

    I checked the Texas Education Agency website for decisions in 2010.
    http://www.tea.state.tx.us/index4.aspx?id=7186

    That district has only one and it doesn’t look like it applies to this child. There is one from the district in 2009 for this district as well. Again, I don’t know if it applies.

  4. Sullivan October 6, 2010 at 18:36 #

    Ah,

    here is something from the docket. An order from 04/07/10 regarding the district’s attempt to get the family to pay legal fees:

    AISD is not a prevailing party with regard to CC’s initial complaint. That complaint was voluntarily dismissed prior to full adjudication, and therefore, did not effect an alteration of the legal relationship between AISD and CC, nor did it foster the purpose of the IDEA. See generally John T. ex rel. Paul T. v. Delaware County Intermediate Unit, 318 F.3d 545 (3rd Cir. 2003) (finding that voluntary dismissal did not create a prevailing party under Third Circuit precedent). Therefore, with regard to CC’s complaint before the TEA, AISD was not a prevailing party.

    The district appears to be claiming that the family brought forth the due process complaint in an “improper” fashion and, because of this, the district can get legal fees. They are arguing that they don’t have to prove malice, just that

    Here is the conclusion of the decision I quoted above:

    Premised upon the above discussion, the Court concludes that the relief requested in AISD’s complaint is not pursuant to any provision provided for under § 1415. Therefore, since the attorney’s fees provision in that section is only applicable to an “action or proceeding brought under [§ 1415,]” application of the attorney’s fees provision in the present case is inappropriate. Accordingly, AISD’s requested summary judgment is improper. Moreover, as established above, AISD cannot, as a matter of law, recover under 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(3)(B)(i)(III), and therefore, the Court sua sponte dismisses its claims.

    So, the judge found that the *district* is now acting improperly, not the family.

    The district is appealing, claiming that the family acted improperly and that the hearing officer used the wrong standard to decide if the family should be held to pay:

    The Hearing Officer erred in determining that the IDEA attorney’s fees provision requires a finding of “malicious intent” and is only to be applied in the “most egregious” cases. To the contrary, as the objective evidence in the record supports the conclusion that the parents filed the request for hearing for an improper purpose, the school district may be awarded its reasonable attorney’s fees.

    The district seems to be avoiding the meat of the decision, which is that the district is not a “prevailing party” in the section of the law that allows them to collect legal fees.

    Perhaps I am missing something, but the district claims “It is undisputed that AISD was the prevailing party.”

    The family clearly disputed that “Initially, he argues that, for the purposes of the IDEA, AISD is not a prevailing party, and therefore, it cannot collect attorney’s fees.”

    and the judge agreed.

  5. KSH October 7, 2010 at 00:56 #

    This is so sad. I hope the judge rules in favor of the parents. With my husband’s job we will move from time to time. I will just hope that Alief is never a place we have to go. We live in Texas and have had such a good experience so far with the school district. The teachers/administrators that we’ve dealt with so far push our son to do more than I’d expect he could. My son’s teacher says that her duty is to teach herself right out of a job. She’s WONDERFUL. She really cares about our son, and she cares about us as his parents. It shows.

  6. stanley seigler October 7, 2010 at 01:05 #

    [LBRB say] “My wife went to observe, found him squashed in the corner and nobody cared,” says Kenneth.

    “many and many a year ago”…my wife went to observe… at lunch teachers were having a gay old time discussing last nite’s date, whatever…my daughter was trying to get plastic utensils out of the plastic wrapping…finally gave up and licked from the plate like a dog…

    nobody cared THEN…no one cares NOW…i’m going to take hostages one day…AND WILL HAVE NO REGRETS.

    stanley seigler

  7. steve October 7, 2010 at 04:17 #

    on the comments on the story someone posted the email addresses for the Alief School board to put some pressure on them

    john.hansen@aliefisd.net, gary.cook@aliefisd.net, sarah.winkler@aliefisd.net, rick.moreno@aliefisd.net, ann.williams@aliefisd.net, nghi.ho@aliefisd.net

    what is sad is that I live in the school district just west of alief which has an excellent autism program – in hindsight the family could have moved 5 miles rather than try to fight these bastards

  8. stanley seigler October 7, 2010 at 20:13 #

    [LBRB say] the district’s taxpayers have compensated Erik Nikols and his Law firm Rogers, Morris and Grover as much as $12,000 in a single month for waging the three-and-a-half year courthouse campaign against the Chibuougwu’s. [end say]

    It goes on and on and on…fund lawyers not FAPE programs…sadly it is lawyers on both sides who foster this source of income…would bet school board plays golf with the FIRM of crap.

    stanley seigler

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