By Melissa Yeager, WINK News
http://www.winknews.com/features/action/33411759.html (See WINK News video)
Oct 27, 2008 at 6:56 PM EDT
COLLIER COUNTY, Fla. - Parents make accusations of a carefully orchestrated strategy to keep special needs students out of the district. Now a report just released from a federal agency says Collier Schools should change the way they handle complaints from parents of students with disabilities.
All special needs students receive what's called an Individual Education Plan or IEP. It's a contract between the student and the district outlining exactly what extra help the child needs to succeed in school. Some parents claim those contracts are deliberately being broken.
While swimming in the pool, Derek Hughes looks like every other happy teenager. Until you notice, his service dog waiting poolside.
Diagnosed with autism, Derek started having seizures while he was a student at Pine Ridge Middle School.
"His seizure activity resulted in an ER visit because no one in school was trained properly to deal with a seizure," his dad, Bill Hughes, told CALL FOR ACTION.
After the seizure, his parents took him to a neurologist at the Dan Marino Center in Miami.
Derek's neurologist recommended the district change Derek's IEP to include requiring a full-time trained nurse stationed at the school (the school only had a part-time nurse). It also recommended allowing Derek to bring his service dog to school.
Despite letter... after letter... after letter from the Derek's family attorney to the district - nothing changed.
Bill Hughes told CALL FOR ACTION, "The district refused to change Derek's IEP. They refused to acknowledge the epilepsy diagnosis. The district even refused to recognize on Derek's IEP he had a seizure even at school.
In January 2006, Derek's dad requested an independent hearing under the American's with Disabilities Act. Federal law requires the district schedule the hearing within 45 days of the request.
"We sit here two and a half years later and not one single element of our sons' case has ever been evaluated and ruled on," said Hughes.
Hughes also complained to the Federal Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.
WINK News asked the district about the Office of Civil Rights' investigation.
"Investigation has different meanings for different people," said Larry Ruble from the Collier County School District.
The District wouldn't comment specifically about Derek's cases because the Hughes have also filed a federal lawsuit against the district.
WINK News asked why the Hughes and other families had filed complaints against the district.
"It concerns me greatly the negative impression that is given about the district in the media by a few parents complaining but I know the district has worked diligently to try to satisfy the complaints of those parents," said Ruble.
Ruble told CALL FOR ACTION many of the complaints were addressed through hearings under a separate federal law, and thus there was no need for the hearings under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Derek's dad says his complaint was never satisfied.
Hughes said, "We were faced at that very point that we would have to defy our neurologists orders for the child and what was required for the child on a 24/7 basis or we had to send him back into that unsafe environment."
In September 2006, the Hughes moved Derek to Pennsylvania. The school there allows him to have his service dog and a sign language interpreter.
As soon as the Hughes enrolled Derek in Pennsylvania the Collier District filed a motion to dismiss the case.
Hughes said, "They manipulated and abused the federal regulatory requirements to keep from being held accountable for failing to meet those needs."
Two years later, Derek's dad hasn't quit his fight. He commutes on the weekends to Pennsylvania from their home and business in Collier, hoping his family might one day reunite in Florida.
"Certainly most families would forfeit the fight at this point and I think the strategy of the district was that we do just that so they weren't held accountable for our son," Hughes told CALL FOR ACTION.
Another family has also filed a separate lawsuits against the district in federal court for the same issue.
The Office of Civil Rights recently finished its investigation and sent a letter to the Collier District recommending changes to how the district informs parents of their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. To read the entire letter CLICK HERE.