2014-07-02 / Front Page

Parents sue schools for civil rights violations

Suit: Autistic students ‘bullied and assaulted’
By Jim McConnell
STAFF WRITER

The county’s School Board, superintendent and three principals are among a large group of Virginia administrators, teachers and attorneys named as defendants in a $20 million civil rights lawsuit.

The suit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, alleges that the defendants “routinely, consistently and habitually over a period of several years” violated federal and state laws governing the education of special needs students.

In the process, plaintiffs claim, the Virginia Department of Education and several local school systems denied their children the right to a free and appropriate public education.

Three Chesterfield couples – Brian and Maria Copple, Gene and Melissa DiSimone and Oscar and Heather Gonzalez – are suing on behalf of their children, each of whom has been diagnosed with autism.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Charlotte Peoples Hodges of Midlothian-based B.I.G. Legal Services, called the lawsuit “an unfortunate circumstance” but suggested it was the only option available to the plaintiffs.

Hodges said that she has advocated for many parents of special needs children during meetings with school officials over the past three years. “It got to the point where I realized that the problems weren’t just in the schools – they went all the way to the top,” she added.

Chesterfield County Public Schools Superintendent Marcus Newsome is being sued along with superintendents in Essex and Nottoway counties and the former superintendent of Henrico County’s public school system.

Defendants also include three local school principals: Mary Robinson of Swift Creek Middle, Carol Lewellyn of Salem Church Elementary and Rachel Foglesong of A.M. Davis Elementary.

Tim Bullis, community relations director for the county school system, declined to comment on the lawsuit. He referred questions to the Reed Smith law firm, which is representing the Chesterfield defendants.

Two of Reed Smith’s attorneys, Kathleen Mehfoud and Patrick Andriano, are listed among the defendants. Both have served as counsel on special education issues to the Chesterfield, Henrico, Essex and Nottoway school systems.

Among the most troubling allegations, the lawsuit claims that the defendants failed to protect the plaintiffs’ children from being “bullied and assaulted” by other students, teachers and administrators.

The suit alleges that Newsome “grossly neglected his duty” to provide special education students with an inclusive, nondiscriminatory educational program designed to meet their unique needs.

Under Newsome’s leadership, the plaintiffs claim, the Chesterfield school system has systematically violated the rights of special needs students by “negligently hiring, training, retaining and supervising teachers who are not qualified” to teach those students.

According to other claims in the lawsuit, between the 2010-11 and 2013-14 school years, the county school system:

• Prevented parents from participating on the team that developed their children’s Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).

• Failed to follow federal guidelines for disciplining, suspending and expelling special education students.

• Banned both parents and advocates of special needs students from school property without the benefit of a due process hearing.

• Generally created a “hostile and fearful environment” for those parents, caretakers and advocates who are vocal about ongoing violations of federal law in Chesterfield schools.

Specifically, the suit alleges that during the 2010-11 and 2011-12 school years, Lewellyn and other Salem Church Elementary officials placed the Gonzalezes’ son in a mainstream classroom without the benefit of an aide or teacher who was trained to deal with his special needs. That decision led to an escalation of his behavioral issues, they claim, and led to unwarranted suspensions that were not in compliance with his IEP.

The Gonzalezes also claim that their son was illegally restrained during the 2011-12 school year by school officials who weren’t trained to appropriately deal with his disability. As a result, he was afraid to return to school.

The Copples and DiSimones claim that school officials failed to recommend private placement for their sons even after it became clear that the schools were unable to meet their educational needs.

Both boys were enrolled in the Dominion School for Autism during the 2013-14 school year.

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