Complaint: Student with Disabilities Not Receiving Education

Attorney says state OPI hasn't enforced its orders for the district to meet its responsibilities under federal law

By Molly Priddy

HELENA — Disability Rights Montana has filed a lawsuit against the Office of Public Instruction and a rural Montana school district saying a 16-year-old boy with disabilities has not received any formal education in three years, in violation of federal law.

The organization said it previously lodged an administrative complaint with OPI. Attorney Tal Goldin says if they can reach an agreement via mediation, they will not pursue the lawsuit filed last week in District Court in Lewis and Clark County.

Goldin tells the Independent Record that the school district has made excuses about its inability to provide appropriate services to the student and OPI hasn’t enforced its orders for the district to meet its responsibilities under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. The lawsuit names Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, two special education administrators in her office along with the school district and its superintendent. It does not identify the school district in an effort to protect the student’s privacy.

OPI attorney Kyle Moen said the office couldn’t comment due to federal privacy laws.

A neurologist who evaluated the boy says he has multiple disabilities including a significant cognitive delay and a traumatic brain injury along with a seizure disorder that may contribute to inappropriate behaviors.

In August 2014, the boy was removed from his regular classroom and placed in the basement of a local church, where he was provided about two hours of services from the school district. However, those services included sorting nuts and bolts and watching DVDs under supervision of various school employees, including a maintenance supervisor, the lawsuit alleges.

The boy’s mother filed a formal complaint with OPI on Sept. 1, 2016. After the OPI investigated, it ordered the school to provide services to the student, Goldin said. However, the district didn’t comply and OPI didn’t enforce the order, Goldin said.

Last October, the boy kicked a teacher and was permanently removed from school.

The boy’s mother complained to OPI again in March and September of this year, but the office failed to act, Goldin said.

Under IDEA, schools receive grants and are required to provide services to students with disabilities in an integrated setting. The law says students can be removed from classes only if the disability is so severe that supplemental services can’t be achieved satisfactorily.

The OPI didn’t try to hire experts, provide additional staff training or fully implement recommendations made by the boy’s neuropsychologist, the lawsuit argues. OPI also could have placed the student in another district or recommend that it lose its federal funding.

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