The Houston County School Board has agreed to place $125,000 in a trust to settle a lawsuit brought against the system over the alleged inappropriate treatment of a special needs student at Wicksburg School.
As part of the settlement, the system will also pay $325,000 in attorney fees to cover the cost of the suit, which has been litigated since December of 2014. Another $1,645 will be paid to a guardian ad litem, an attorney appointed apart from the defense team to look out for the best interest of the student.
The case involves an elementary school student who claimed abuse and unnecessary isolation in Wicksburg from 2010-12. The settlement was approved by the board earlier this week.
“We’re glad to have it behind us. As part of the settlement, there is no admission of fault from the board. It had just gotten to the point where it was cheaper to settle than to continue to fight this,” Houston County Schools Superintendent David Sewell said when reached Thursday by the Dothan Eagle.
According to court records, the student was assigned to regular and special education classrooms in third and fourth grade at Wicksburg from 2010-12. The aide initially helped the student navigate campus, get to lunch and recess and finish class work.
Court records indicate the aide began taking the student out of the classroom in 2011 and 2012 and taking him to the school’s weight room, purportedly because the student could use the private restroom there and complete classwork while also doing physical therapy. Records indicate the school principal was notified and instructed the aide to stop taking the student to the weight room. However, the trips to the weight room continued.
Later, in 2012, a student apparently witnessed the aide kicking the student’s wheelchair and berating him. In response, the student’s parents placed a recorder underneath the student’s wheelchair for several days and apparently captured verbal abuse and possible physical abuse.
The aide resigned.
The student’s parents filed an initial suit in 2012. The suit was resolved with respect to the aide and one of the special education teachers. They subsequently sued the Houston County School Board in 2014, claiming the removal from the classroom was discriminatory, that it constituted a gross misjudgment, deviated greatly from the student’s individual education plan and created an atmosphere for abuse.
A federal judge granted summary judgment to the school board, concluding that the student’s removal from the classroom did not amount to a gross misjudgment nor did it hamper the student’s access to a free appropriate public education and that the board/system did not have prior notice of verbal or physical abuse before acting.
An appeals court panel, however, ruled that whether the removal constituted a lack of access to a free appropriate public education – and whether the system was in a position to correct the action -- should be a matter for a jury.
“(The student) has alleged — and has provided evidence tending to show — that he was, with some frequency, excluded and isolated from his classroom and peers on the basis of his disability,” the appeals court panel wrote in its decision. “Although the circumstances alleged here do involve a violation of (the student’s individual education plan), they also implicate those further, intangible consequences of discrimination … that could result from isolation, such as stigmatization and deprivation of opportunities for enriching interaction with fellow students. These injuries reach beyond a misdiagnosis or failure to provide appropriate remedial coursework.”
The panel further ruled the board could not be held liable for the alleged verbal and physical abuse because there was insufficient evidence from which a reasonable jury could conclude the board had prior notice.
The case was scheduled for trial soon before the settlement was reached.
The settlement was approved by Emily C. Marks, Chief U.S. District Judge for the Middle District of Alabama.