The parents of a child with special needs say the staff at Johnston County Schools violated federal law and made plans to have their son removed from school.
In the end, the school settled with the family for $200,000. Their story is complicated, but they say it’s a warning to parents with special needs.
“You never suspect a school system to stoop to something like this,” Tanya Holland said. “This represents one of the most egregious violations of a parent’s trust imaginable.”
“It was just a real cold slap in the face,” Jeff Holland said.
When the Hollands moved from Currituck to Johnston County in 2010, they knew it would take some early planning to make sure their son’s new school, Powhatan Elementary in Clayton, could meet all of his educational needs.
Their son Ben, who has autism, was starting third grade.
“Ben is a wonderful child. He has lots of talents and abilities, the fact that he has autism is not really the thing that makes him most interesting,” his mom proudly said. “His former teacher said teaching your boy has been the highlight of my career.”
While interviewing the Hollands, Ben showed us his love for classical music by playing violin.
Federally protected education plan
Ben had a federally mandated and protected Individualized Education Plan, or “IEP,” that they say had been working wonders.
“I delivered it three weeks before school started so the district would have enough time to train the teachers and to make certain they had enough staff,” Tanya Holland said.
But the couple says from the start, staff at Johnston County Schools seemed to have their own plans.
“They made a unilateral decision to place him in the autism classroom and access him for what they believed his ‘true’ needs to be, which is a clear violation of IDEA,” Tanya Holland said.
“IDEA” is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the federal law ensuring children like Ben get the help they need.
“They went into it knowing what the IEP required, however they did not comply with the IEP,” Tanya Holland said.
Ben was supposed to spend part of the day in a regular classroom with students without disabilities. He was also supposed to have a full-time, specially trained aide.
His parents say he never got it. His behavior soon started to show it.
He was suspended multiple times and even injured a teacher.
“We just began to see that the cards were being stacked further and further against us,” explained Jeff Holland.
Against his parent’s pleas, Ben was eventually put in a room by himself with a teacher assistant and a substitute.
They say all of his progress had gone out the window and after nearly six months the Hollands had enough.
“Anytime you begin to feel like the school system is doing things in secrecy behind your back you just begin to have this sinking feeling inside,” Jeff Holland said.
“We had no real other recourse to address these grievances except through the court system,” Tanya Holland added.
In 2011, the Hollands filed a due process complaint against the school system, saying Johnston County did not provide Ben with the education he needed.
The school system denied it.
An administrative law judge ruled in favor of the school district, saying the Hollands failed to show that the school didn’t provide Ben with an appropriate education.
So the Hollands appealed the case to federal court, and it’s then they say they found their “smoking gun.” Emails obtained during discovery they say proved their suspicions were right.
“We were stunned, I mean stunned where you just stop and you’re in horror and just don’t know what to say to each other,” Jeff Holland said.
The emails show the former principal withheld information from the couple.
The Hollands say district employees also set up a rigged meeting to try to get Ben out of their school system.
WNCN Investigates obtained an email from former Chief Academic Officer Keith Beamon. It shows they planned to suggest home-bounding Ben or sending him to a mental hospital.
The email says “the parents will reject” and “they will take us to court.”
One line even says “Lee and Gary do not want the kid back.” Lee Hudson is the former assistant principal of Powhatan Elementary and Gary Ridout is the former interim principal.
Another email shows the current Superintendent Ed Croom made the final call, suggesting home-bound for Ben.
WNCN Investigates emailed one of the leading experts in Special Ed Law, Peter Wright of WrightsLaw.
He cited the federal statute, (20 USC § 1414), that says only a student’s IEP team can make decisions to change their IEP.
“Beamon and Croom were not part of our son’s IEP team,” said Jeff Holland.
He also discussed the significance of the word “comparable” regarding a child’s move from one jurisdiction to another in the U.S. Code (20 USC 1414(d)(2)(C)(i)(I)).
Beamon also sent an email to the former Exceptional Children Director, saying, “It’s not what you wanted but this is what we have to do. I know there will be consequences but he [Croom] is the boss. We need to make it happen.”
“I read it several more times very slowly and I had this sinking feeling of horror starting to come over me as I realized it was what it looked like. They were going to utilize DSS to take our son away from us, put him in a mental health institution then place him in a subsequent group home all so he could stay out of the district,” said Tanya Holland.
After a lengthy back and forth in court the Hollands finally settled this summer.
The school paid the family $200,000.
“A school system will never settle with a family if they’ve done nothing wrong. There’s no reason to hand a family $200,000 if they’re totally clean and innocent on their end,” said Jeff Holland.
WNCN reached out multiple times to Croom and to Johnston County Schools but they will not address the issue on camera.
A spokesperson emailed a statement saying, “By way of settlement, it was agreed by all parties that there was no fault or liability on the Johnston County Board of Education or its personnel. The matter was settled in order to resolve any contentions or issues that the parties had.”
“It did not pay us back for everything we had spent for the therapy that was necessary to undo the damage,” Tanya Holland said. “In so many ways everyone suffered, everyone lost,” she added.
It’s a school year they say Ben will never get back, but now in a new school district, they say he is once again making progress.
If you have a child with special needs or an IEP, you can find more resources here http://idea.ed.gov/