Stakes High In Special Education Disputes, With Legal Costs To Match

Utica Schools have spent almost $300,000 defending treatment of one student

Editor's Note: The story has been corrected to note that the mother suing Utica Community Schools has paid for legal representation.

Over a five-year period, Utica Community Schools paid one law firm approximately $295,000 in documented legal fees related to a lawsuit brought by a single mother over how the school district wanted to educate her son, who has autism. That's according to legal invoices obtained through an open records request for documents from Utica public schools.

The mother won a number of court rulings between September 2012 and December 2017, but the school district has appealed those rulings, and the case is now in federal district and appeals courts.

Utica is the state’s second largest school district and is also experiencing financial stress. A December 2017 report characterized it as “on the path to financial disaster.”

The mother’s disagreement with the district began when it allegedly refused to abide by a previously agreed-upon education plan for her son. Instead, it placed him in an educational setting reportedly meant for children with much more severe mental impairments.

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Federal law requires public schools to create an education plan for students with disabilities, offering them appropriate services in the least restrictive environment. When parents and school districts disagree about the plan for a specific student, they can either have the case decided by the Michigan Department of Education, or by an administrative law judge.

In the Utica case, the student's mother is paying for legal assistance. Fighting a school district willing to spend nearly $300,000 is a financial drain.

Utica isn’t the only school district willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting parents over the education plans of disabled children. Walled Lake’s school district spent nearly $200,000 in legal fees over 18 months (May 2016 to October 2017) defending its decision to put two boys into a classroom for children with cognitive impairments.

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Detroit Prep is a top-rated and economically and racially diverse charter school in the city. It's growth means it needs to move out from a church basement and into a new location. Nearby is a former Detroit Public Schools building, sitting empty for years. But, worried about competition, the public school district refused to sell. For years, district and local government officials in Detroit had worked to block public charter schools. They pushed legislation at the Michigan Capitol to hinder them, refused to sell to them, transferred surplus buildings from the district to the city government and imposed deed restrictions on property sales to private developers. All of it was aimed to hinder or even prevent charter school choice outside the confines of the Detroit school district.

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