Deborah Duncan Rausch says it took countless sleepless nights researching and even selling her home to fight her son, Luka’s, public school district and win. She doesn’t want any other family to have to do the same just to get their child included.
Deborah says it started in their hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee when she realized starting in preschool Luka would be segregated from his peers and set on a non-academic path to nowhere. The family moved to Hamilton County to a magnet school in Chattanooga that initially accepted Luka with open arms. But starting in 3rd grade, as high stakes state testing began, the school started pushing for a segregated setting even though Luka was making progress.
The district wanted to place Luka for half his day in a self-contained classroom in a school outside of his neighborhood. “The segregated class follows no state curriculum or standards. There’s no homework or grades. No accountability,” Deborah explains.
Read Related Post Here: Ninth Circuit Court to Decide if Student with Down Syndrome Can Stay in General Education Classroom
Deborah pushed back and started advocating for other families facing the same prejudice in her school district. “It was so important to me because I knew it was endemic. They were trying to segregate my son as a 9-year-old. It was worth selling my house to pay the $75,000 in legal fees to force the school district to follow federal law. But what about the families that can’t?” Deborah asks.
Knowing Luka would not receive a Free and Appropriate Education in the Least Restrictive Environment if he stayed, Deborah moved her son to a Montessori School where he continues to attend today. After a five year battle with the school district, the family eventually prevailed at the district court level in Tennessee. The District Court ruled that a self-contained class is more restrictive than necessary, but that the family would not receive reimbursement for the private Montessori School.
She didn’t stop there. “I’m in finance, so I know you have to follow the money,” says Deborah. She started digging deep, making numerous Freedom of Information requests, and soon uncovered an incentived funding formula that keeps students with disabilities in her county in a cycle of segregation. “Our district’s formula pays more in segregated setting receiving the exact same level of service, than if they were in regular setting. We filed suit against Tennessee’s Department of Education for violating their fudiciary duties. They quickly settled with us, because they knew we were right,” Deborah explains.
“We can’t go any place in our town without parents coming up to us and thanking us for what we did. They say they felt helpless,” Deborah describes.
Read Related Post Here: 7 Research Studies You Can Use at Your Child’s Next IEP Meeting to Win the Fight for Inclusion
The family’s battle for inclusion is still not over. Hamilton County Schools actually filed an appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Federal Appeals. “They have no ground to land on, but it allows them to delay reimbursement of our legal fees. They just look vindictive and have spent a lot of taxpayer money just to violate the law. We finally decided to cross appeal for reimbursement of the Montessori school private tuition,” Deborah explains.
The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that families can be reimbursed for private school tuition if the public school IEP was found to be inappropriate, and the if the private school placement is deemed to be the most appropriate available option (School Committee of the Town of Burlington v.Department of Education of Massachusetts). “The District Judge even stated Luka made progress at the Montessori School, and he ruled the public school was inappropriate. I think he knew there was a clear violation, but just didn’t want to penalize the school district by making them pay for the private school tuition,” Deborah explains.
Even after all of the family’s success, Deborah would never recommend suing. “I would recommend learning everything you can about your child’s rights. Get connected to a local advocacy agency. No parents should go into an IEP meeting alone. Always have an advocate with you. Schools will negotiate if pushed. Fewer district will go as far to segregate as ours did,” Deborah says.
“And If you don’t care at all about disabilities, care about the the cost of taking parents to court. We could be pushing a million dollars for my son’s case, and not a single student has been educated with that money. That money should have been spent on training teachers, co-teachers, advocacy training for parents. Everyone should be outraged by that.”
A ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court for L.H. v. Department of Education of Hamilton County could take months or even a year. I will keep you posted on any updates about the case.
Have you or someone you know had to fight a similar battle for inclusion? Are you frustrated that we’re still fighting this fight more than 30 years after the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was passed? Tell me about it below.