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District Sues Parent for 'Frivolous' Special Education Dispute

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The Bethlehem, Pa. school district says that a parent is trying to harass them by filing 22 due process hearing requests in eight years, and now they want her to pay the district's legal fees.

In an article in the The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa., the district says that the parent, Diana Zhou, has a history of refusing to agree to special education plans for her two children. The district also claims that the parent had a specific purpose in mind, according to the article:

...the suit states Zhou intensified her ''vexatious'' behavior when she told state mediator William Haussman on Nov. 24, 2008, she was ''engaging in due process procedures to drive up costs for the district so that the district would agree to pay'' for her children to attend private Moravian Academy in downtown Bethlehem.

Reached at her home Tuesday, Zhou, who does not have an attorney, said she did not receive a copy of the suit. She declined to comment, except to say she worried about a backlash against her two children, who still attend school in the district.

You can read a copy of the lawsuit here.

Perry Zirkel, a special education law expert at Lehigh University, says that proving a case is frivolous is difficult, but it's a sign that districts "are willing to fight back." Judging by the amount of money that can be expended by some school districts to defend themselves in due process hearings, I think it's clear that some districts are already fighting back. But it'll be interesting to see if suits of this nature will be a new weapon in the arsenal.

2 Comments

Well, it makes good headlines. I'm not certain that it's a good solution. I recall from somewhere a study of doctors suggesting that one of the best defenses against malpractice suits was an change in such things as making eye contact and listening to a patient's concerns--in other words, building a relationship of trust.

By the time that a family/school arrives at the point of due process, any trust that might have been established is severely damaged. Using mediation in place of a hearing is a step in a more positive direction (although it surprises me that a mediator is reporting things to the press--my understanding was that everything that happens in mediation was pretty confidential, even unavailable for future due process purposes). But much can depend on the mediator. A mediator without a sufficient legal grounding can unwittingly lead a family into an agreement that wouldn't pass muster, as a hearing officer without sufficient education knowledge can have all the i's and t's right, but still not meet the kid's needs.

Placing so much weight for the enforcement of IDEA on parents has not taken us to a good place. So much is individualized, hence very uneven. Parents and districts are placed in adversarial roles that are not helpful. And by virtue of being a legal process, the amount of time consumed makes any "wins" generally too little and too late.

Even if every decision were to be followed by a state review to determine that district's policies and practices are in accord with the ruling would be helpful. I have no idea if Moravian Academy would provide a better education for this mom's kids, or if that is truly her intent. Yet, there does appear to be something there that she is after. Perhaps a friendlier atmosphere. It would certainly be more productive to figure out what it is, and whether the district is able to provide it. Perhaps in the long run it would be more efficient to put the kids there--I don't know. But, I don't think the current system is getting us any closer to figuring that out.

@Margo/Mom -

My initial reaction to this post was "What a disaster; this will make the next 10 years of my family's efforts to get a FAPE education out of Baltimore's school system a lot harder."

Then, reading your comment got me thinking about the level of parent responsibility and how troubling it is(especially in an urban, high poverty setting like Baltimore). Seeing it clearly stated in your comment formed a coherant picture in my mind. We bend over backwards, in the face of absurd settings, to try to keep dialog open. We've spent way too much money on lawyers to get a fair placement without ever having a chance at reimbursement (that would have required court which would have been adversarial). The thing that keeps us going is looking at the kids who's parents can't fight these fights, either due to lack of information or money. I hope that somehow our victories will help them, without causing my child to suffer.

Sometimes it's all a bit much to take, as is the thought that we've got 10+ years to go and those will be teen years and probably much harder.

Sorry, sounds like I'm whining. Just wanted to say that I really connected with your comment.

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