Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Court Victory for Virginia Parents of Autistic Child Who Sought ABA Services

A U.S. District Court judge in Richmond, Va., ruled May 26 against a school district and in favor of parents who sought reimbursement for private school tuition for their autistic son. It's a ruling against the Henrico County school system that, according to this news report in The Richmond Times-Dispatch, could cost the district hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In his Wrightslaw web coverage, Peter W.D. Wright provides a legal analysis of the case -- he notes, for instance, that the Henrico County school district, which filed suit against the parents after they won their case in the state administrative hearing process, is known as a litigious agency among lawyers. Wrightslaw also posts a copy of the decision in the case by U.S. District Judge Judge Robert E. Payne in "County School Board of Henrico County, Va., v. R.T., a minor, et. al." (As Wright notes, the judge provides a cogent discussion of what autism is, problems of attending and stimming, and different methods used to teach young children with autism spectrum disorders.)

These links above outline the story of R.T., a young boy with autism spectrum disorder. The gist of the story is that R.T.'s parents took their son out of the public school program after he was failing in a classroom run under a method known as TEACCH, for Treatment and Education of Autistic and realated Communication-handicapped Children. ( is a link based at the University of North Carolina Medical School.) R.T.'s Henrico County school district classroom served seven disabled children with one teacher and one aide continuously roaming around the room to make sure the children stayed on task. After R.T. failed to make progress, his parents enrolled him in a program at the Faison School for Autism, which follows the principles of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). R.T. made substantial, rapid progress. Then his parents successfully proved to a state hearing officer that they deserved tuition reimbursement because Henrico County didn't provide a free and appropriate education mandated by federal law. The school district appealed this decision in federal court.

Special education lawyers are going to study this decision for several reasons, not the least of which is that it comes on the heels of an important 2005 Supreme Court Decision, Schaffer v. Weast, which says that the burden of proof in special education cases falls on the party seeking relief. (Often that is the families of special needs kids, but in this case it was the Henrico County school district.)

But more important for parents of autistic kids is this lesson: The reason the judge rejected the school district's arguments, and awarded parents a victory, was that they were able to demonstrate their child's educational needs using evidence -- especially data collected during ABA instruction time -- to show what kinds of educational services were helping R.T. make effective progress.

It can be very difficult for parents, in the midst of ongoing discussions with school officials about educational services, to separate the business of discussing services, the work of collecting information from professionals and backing up your position using facts, from the fact that you're talking about a person's life -- your kid's life. But it's a must. The parents of R.T. (or Reid) did. And they won.

As the mom in the Virginia case, Courtney Tutwiler, told the Times-Dispatch: "The opinion validates our belief that not only was it right that we pulled Reid out of the county school system but that what the county could offer Reid at the time was not appropriate."

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