Photo of the MIssouri River in Chamberlain South Dakota (John Hult/South Dakota Searchlight)
A federal judge has ordered the Chamberlain School District to pay nearly $100,000 to the family of a child with disabilities to cover the cost of the child’s special education.
The judgment affirms the earlier conclusions of a hearing examiner who had ordered the district to reimburse parents Judith and Michael Steckelberg for the tuition and travel costs associated with a specialty care facility in Utah.
The ruling from Judge Lawrence Piersol was filed Wednesday in the Southern Division of the U.S. District Court in South Dakota.
The district’s appeal centered on its responsibility to pay for Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.
The Steckelbergs’ child, now an adult, is identified in court documents as “AMS.”
AMS was described as “an active child” who had a “sudden onset” of physical and behavioral conditions in the fifth grade. The child was soon diagnosed with Pediatric Acute Onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (PANS), obsessive compulsive disorder, Tourette’s and random tic disorder, according to court documents.
As AMS moved through school in Chamberlain, the child’s behavioral and attention problems prompted a series of district interventions and assessments, but outbursts and disruptive behaviors continued.
The child was hospitalized several times at Avera Behavioral Health in Sioux Falls and missed most of the fifth, sixth and seventh grade school years as a result. The school built multiple Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for the child, but by 2018, the Chamberlain High School principal told the Steckelbergs, “I’m at the point where I don’t think being at CHS is the right setting for [AMS].”
AMS was sent home for remote learning for the 2018-2019 school year, but the court record says the child was unable to access the software needed to hear lectures, and that not all the teachers used it. The child also used Google Docs, but lost access to that software.
There was also a communication breakdown between the family and the district that year, and the principal didn’t tell teachers that communication was mandatory under the IEP until near the end of the spring semester.
The family soon requested an out-of-district placement at a facility covered by Medicaid, but AMS was rejected for a spot at a psychiatric residential facility in Plankinton due to age. No other facilities in the nation would cover the child’s tuition through Medicaid, the court record says.
The child eventually found a place at Kaizen Academy in Utah for the 2019-2020 year, but the district balked at payment because the private school didn’t qualify as a psychiatric residential facility and didn’t accept Medicaid.
The school district did not respond to the family’s notice of placement at the school.
AMS graduated at Kaizen in 2020, earning A’s and B’s, and was attending a public university in South Dakota by the time the administrative hearing over the matter commenced.
The hearing examiner found that the Chamberlain School District’s educational interventions were inadequate for the child, and that its refusal to recognize Kaizen as an appropriate placement was a violation of its FAPE obligations under federal law.
“Administration for Respondent knew that AMS could not be placed within the school and the home placement was not working,” the hearing examiner wrote. “AMS had to be placed in a facility that treated the behaviors as well as provided an education.”
The school district appealed the ruling, but Judge Piersol sided with the family.
“The Court concludes that the Hearing Examiner properly weighed and considered the evidence and the credibility of the witnesses who testified at the hearing. The appropriateness of AMS’s placement at Kaizen, considering [the child’s] academic and behavioral needs, is supported by a preponderance of the evidence and is consistent with the IDEA,” Piersol wrote. “The School District has failed to carry its burden to demonstrate otherwise.”
The ruling is a victory for the family, according to their attorney, Gina Ruggieri, but the years of work to win their case, then later to fend off the district’s appeal in federal court, have been costly — costly enough to make a deep cut in the value of Wednesday’s monetary award.
“They shouldn’t have had to spend that kind of money,” Ruggieri said. “It’s still not done. I need to file for attorney’s fees so they can get back the money they paid me.”
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