Manatee school board to vote on lawsuit filed by parents of student

BRADENTON -- Manatee County school board members face a decision Monday that could end three years of litigation by settling a lawsuit between the school district and the parents of a child with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Board members are scheduled to vote on whether to accept a settlement that would mean that the child’s parents would be awarded $55,000, and a legal counterclaim filed against the district would be dropped. In turn, the school district would drop an appeal with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and pay at least $154,000 in private attorneys fees.

The case started in 2008 when the parents of the then-11-year-old sought to have “an independent evaluation” of their child who is diagnosed with Asperger’s -- a high-functioning form of autism.

The parents and the child are not named in the lawsuit to protect the child.

The parents agreed to retain a private psychologist who, in turn, would evaluate their child in the classroom. School district officials, however, disagreed.

“My clients were out to help their child,” attorney Timothy Weber said. “Doing nothing was not the solution.”

School officials said that “a private vendor in the classroom would be disruptive and the information sought by the private psychologist could be provided by interviewing the teachers with no disruption,” according to school records.

“This was solely an issue of whether a private psychologist could come on school grounds,” schools attorney John Bowen said.

The parents sued the school district. The case was heard before an administrative law judge in 2008 who ruled in the parents’ favor.

“Petitioner’s parents right to an independent education evaluation includes the right for their independent evaluator to conduct reasonable in-school observations,” administrative law judge C.S. Holifield said in her ruling.

The school district appealed to Tampa’s U.S. District Court. The district felt the ruling was in error, Bowen said.

“This was our right as a district to control access to the classroom by outside vendors,” he said.

The case in the U.S. District Court is filled with back-to-back motions, including one by the school district for the judge to enter an early judgment. The district lost that effort and the judge OK’d a large portion of a counterclaim filed by Weber.

The counterclaim said that the now-middle-school child was discriminated against on the basis of a disability. Weber cited federal legislation under the Rehabilitation Act and the American Disabilities Act and the Florida Educational Equity Act.

“That was very unusual,” Bowen said about the judge’s acceptance of Weber’s counterclaim. “That counterclaim ran up the cost. Now we’ve got a final judgment on an issue we wanted a finding on. We’re stuck with that ruling.”

“The counterclaim we filed was because they (school district officials) kept pushing,” Weber said. “The more the parents tried to help, the more the school district said no.”

After that decision, Bowen appealed to Atlanta’s U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. That court believed the school district had not exhausted all avenues in the Tampa court.

The two groups were destined for a court date in Tampa’s U.S. District Court until Jan. 6, when the district’s attorneys and Weber met for a mediation hearing, which led to the settlement. Through the years, seven attorneys have worked on the case on behalf of the district -- including three school attorneys.

For Bowen, the case centered on one question: “Can we control access to our classrooms from outside vendors?”

The parents worked with two different attorneys before Weber.

“My clients have their list of grievances with how the school district has treated their child,” he said. “In the end, this isn’t just their child that might need help some day. This is someone else’s child that might need help some day.”