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District officials say legal bills exceed $175,000

District officials say legal bills exceed $175,000 Published: May 4, 2007 By CHRIS COLLINS ccollins@bakercityherald.com The Baker School District has racked up legal fees of more than $175,000 in a six-year dispute over special education services the district provided to a child with autism. Dan Van Thiel, a Baker City attorney who gives legal advice to the district, told board members in a special meeting Tuesday night that the district should seek additional insurance coverage to help pay these costs. "That's a budget breaker," Van Thiel said of the litigation expense. "I want to look at if you can get more coverage for the defense of these kinds of cases." James Van Duyn of Baker City filed a lawsuit on behalf of his son, Christopher Van Duyn. The school district was represented by Richard Cohn-Lee of The Hungerford Law Firm of Oregon City. Neither Van Thiel nor the district could say whether the $175,000 expense included the $25,000 the district's insurance carrier has paid. Cohn-Lee did not return phone calls to his office in time for this story. Baker Superintendent Don Ulrey added that in addition to the legal expenses, three special education directors as well as teachers, classroom assistants and principals were called from their duties because of the complaint. "Not only do we having this outstanding cost, but the cost for individuals to testify, travel and give depositions," Ulrey said. "I have appreciated their work." Ulrey said figuring that cost into the total brings the expense to "way over" $175,000. Christopher's mother, Pamela Van Duyn, who also served as an attorney in arguing the case against the school district, agrees that the money the district spent in defending the case could have been put to better use. "I believe the responsibility for the public expense of all this is on the district's decision makers to litigate rather than simply provide the services they agreed to provide in Chris's IEP (individualized educational plan)," she said. "They could have easily avoided all this by simply complying with Chris's IEP. It is clear they didn't. It is also clear that we never asked for more than that." The district is also facing a negligence complaint filed in Baker County Circuit Court on March 6 by Harold Poeling, a former Eastern Oregon University student teacher who spent time during 2005-06 at the Baker Middle School and Baker High School. Poeling claims he suffered permanent injury to one of his hands on Dec. 6, 2005, when a window he opened in the music room of the middle school Central Building "spontaneously slammed down crushing Poeling's ring and middle fingers, breaking bones in both fingers and causing extreme lacerations." He seeks economic damages of $100,000, claiming that his "ability to excel in his profession as a music teacher and trumpet player has been severely limited" by the injury. He seeks non-economic damages of not less than $100,000 for the "pain and suffering" he has experienced since the injury. Poeling also seeks $6,630.38 to pay his medical expenses. Van Thiel said the issue of whether the district or the university is responsible for the Poeling's claim has yet to be decided. "I think it's a good workers comp claim," Van Thiel said. The district will be represented in the complaint by Peter Mersereau, a Portland attorney. Brent Smith, a La Grande attorney, is representing Poeling. The district also has come to an agreement with the North Powder School District regarding a civil rights complaint brought by David and Carrie Richman of Haines regarding special education services for their preschool daughter with Williams Syndrome. The syndrome is "a rare genetic condition (estimated to occur in 1/20,000 births) which causes medical and developmental problems, according to the Williams Syndrome Association. More information is available at this Web site:www.williams-syndrome.org. The Richmans' daughter will attend kindergarten at North Powder next year as her parents have requested, said Barry Nemec, the Baker District's special education director. Both districts agree with the Richmans' assertion that it would be in their daughter's best interest to remain in the North Powder School District where her two siblings attend, Nemec said. "It would make sense for Baker to pull her back to our district and give her the benefit of our staff's expertise," Nemec said. But because of her special needs, her parents have advocated for keeping her at North Powder. It also becomes of question of which district would receive the special education funding (about $12,000 per child per year), Nemec said. A federal mediator from Seattle helped forge an agreement between the districts. "Sometimes you have to step away from the financial side and look at what's best for the student," Nemec said. "And sometimes it takes that extra person in the room who doesn't have an opinion to get to a decision." The state Department of Education has proposed changing the way it handles inter-district transfers for students with disabilities in 2007-08, Nemec said. The change would allow North Powder to receive basic and weighted state school support funding for the child and to take responsibility for providing her with a free and appropriate public education as required by federal law. http://www.bakercityherald.com/news/story.cfm?story_no=4940

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$175,000 on legal expenses..... these stories just make my jaw drop. They'll fight tooth and nail to avoid providing services. I'd really love to know what the parents were asking for on the IEP, I have a feeling that it probably wasn't much. ------ Note: see other story for parent's version http://www.autismoregon.org/couple_challenges_appeals_court_ruling_5

Unfortunately that has been happening for years. Especially in Oregon, they don't want to open the barn doors to sustained increases in costs by actually giving children better services.

The controversy surrounded an agreed to IEP. The team articulated that the middle school was ill prepared for a high needs autistic student and as a result we provided for state level training of teachers and aide, regional augmentative communication services and regional autism consultations with extra services in the early months of the transition. These are some of the services that the district simply did not arrange for and provide. The Aide, from September to the end of January didn't believe Chris was even disabled--just that his parents babied him and wouldn't let him grow up!! At the age of 13, Chris's language age was between 2 and 3 years of age and had a CARS score of 36 yet her lack of training and supervision was excused by the court, as were her unilateral changes to his behavior management plan. There were a large number of interventions (Teacch, ABA, and a number of others) that had been in place for year (with great success) that simply dropped away due to neglect and lack of training in the new setting. Rather than create a self contained classroom as the IEP required, Chris was stuck in the corner with this aide unsupervised while the teachers taught resouce room classes to LD 8th graders. They also violated the amount and frequency of academic services. He suffered educational losses from which he has never recovered. The serious problem with the decision in the case is that it allows districts to agree to anything, close the IEP meeting and do as they please, without consent of the parents to the changes. It is a very serious assault on the IDEA protections for parental involvement. It puts parents in an impossible position of having to prove the "materality" of each deviation and completely disregards the expertise and judgment of the IEP team that those things in the IEP are there because they will make the difference in the education of the child. Just a TERRIBLE decision that we are applying to have reviewed.