School board group concerned about legal fees.

The House Education Committee approved a bill March 31 that would raise the standard to which school districts must adhere when providing educational services to disabled children.

Introduced by Rep. S. Quinton Johnson, D-Middletown, with support from Lt. Gov. Matt Denn, House Bill 328 would abandon a standard articulated by the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which states that school do not have to provide disabled students with a “Cadillac” education, only one that equates to a “serviceable Chevrolet.”

Instead, the bill would require Delaware schools to adhere to a standard established by the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which states that disabled children are entitled to a “free and appropriate” public education.

Johnson and Denn said at a hearing on the bill that, aside from being a higher standard, the 3rd Circuit’s definition is more applicable to Delaware, since that court has direct jurisdiction over the state.

“The legislation would make sure we are following the 3rd Circuit,” Denn said. “We’re already under this jurisdiction, but we’re not following it.”

Denn also made a point of saying this bill is not directed at all Delaware’s school districts, since many already do a good job of ensuring they do everything within their power to provide the services disabled children need to excel.

However, several parents testified that, in their cases, school districts haven’t done all they can to help their disabled students.

Newark resident Terri Hancharick said she’s fought the Colonial School District to provide better services to her daughter, Brigitte, who attends the John G. Leach School in New Castle.

“At the district level, I’ve seen a lot of push-back. They wanted to cut staffing,” she said. “I was told Colonial was the model of fiscal responsibility. To what end?”

Kathy Willis said her son Tyler’s autism was ignored and marginalized by school officials so they would not be required to provide him with specialized instruction.

Even though she paid for evaluations of her son’s condition from physicians and specialists confirming the diagnosis, Tyler remained in conventional classes.

Willis eventually sued the school district, which she wouldn’t name.

“A lot of teachers and schools are denying [conditions], saying they don’t see it in school,” she said. “Schools are the only place where they’re allowed to second guess a doctor’s opinion.”

Though none spoke at the hearing, the bill is not without opponents.

Susan Francis, executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association, said her membership has expressed concerns over the financial impact of the higher standard, particularly related to possible legal proceedings parents of disabled children may initiate with school districts if they feel their children’s educational needs aren’t being met.

These so-called “due process” proceedings allow parents to challenge school district policies with respect to their children.

Francis said school boards are concerned that the language of HB 328 would lead to more due process grievances being filed by parents and cost the district money for attorneys’ fees.

“Certainly we are supporting an appropriate and strong education for all children, we approve of that concept,” she said. “We oppose parts of the bill as written.”

Sponsor Johnson said he thinks districts won’t have to worry about legal action if they do what’s best for disabled students.

“People might say, ‘We’re afraid of what parents may ask for,’” he said. “I think parents should ask for the moon.”

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