By JENNIFER SINCO KELLEHER
HONOLULU — The state Department of Education violated the law by holding a meeting to change an autistic Maui student’s educational plan without involving his parents, a federal appeals court panel ruled.
Hawaii education officials violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by altering Spencer Clark’s individualized education program during a meeting that his father couldn’t attend and had tried to reschedule, according to Thursday’s 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion.
Clark, of Kihei, was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and is now 18. Since fifth grade, the state placed him at Horizons Academy, a private special education school. The law allows special-needs students to receive a free education at a private school.
During a 2010 meeting, Clark’s placement was changed to Maui High School. Clark’s father “vigorously objected” to holding the meeting without him and tried repeatedly to reschedule, but the department, “over his repeated objections, and, at that meeting, decided to change Spencer’s educational placement for the first time in six years,” the opinion states.
Clark’s parents kept him at the private school and paid the monthly $12,800 tuition themselves, said the family’s Honolulu attorney, Keith Peck.
The case goes back to U.S. District Court to determine whether the parents can be reimbursed for the tuition.
“We are carefully reviewing the 9th Circuit decision,” Deputy Superintendent Ronn Nozoe said in a statement. “The department intends to comply fully with the legal mandates on free and appropriate education.”
Peck called it a “watershed case” that shows school districts they can’t shift the blame onto parents.
The family went into debt and has lost faith in the public school system, Clark’s mother, Cindy Clark, said Friday.
“They play games with our children’s lives,” she said through tears. “I am so glad we won this landmark case.”
It wasn’t an easy battle, she said: “We went all the way to the 9th Circuit. Not every parent can do that. We would not give up. We advocated for our son this entire time.”