StarTribune: Appeals Court Rules Robbinsdale Special-Ed Students Were Denied

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Last update: September 26, 2007 – 8:50 PM

The Robbinsdale School District violated student rights when it unilaterally canceled adaptive swimming classes for 31 special education students in 2005, the state Court of Appeals has ruled.In a 20-page, unpublished opinion issued Tuesday, a three-judge panel knocked down every argument the school district made, ruling that it denied the students of their right to a free and appropriate public education.

The court also rejected the district’s claims that the state Department of Education acted arbitrarily when it ordered the district to restore services.

“I do feel vindicated that the Minnesota Department of Education said I was right in bringing this issue to light,” said Debra Silbernagel of Crystal, the parent who started the case, “and now the Court of Appeals also agrees that the school was wrong in what they did.”

Robbinsdale Superintendent Stan Mack said Wednesday that the district has effectively been complying with the Education Department’s orders since January. “Our bigger concern is related to the disappointment we have with the precedent that it may set,” he said of the Appeals Court opinion.

The Star Tribune reported in December that the Education Department had received a disproportionate number of complaints about the Robbinsdale district. The department found that some special-education students had lost educational ground due to district actions and ordered compensatory services for them.

The department ordered the district to provide compensatory swim classes, to provide adaptive swimming in the 2006-07 school year, and to notify parents of changes in their children’s individual education plans (IEPs).

The district replaced its special-ed director shortly after the story appeared. But it resisted state orders in the adaptive swimming matter until Education Commissioner Alice Seagren threatened to withhold more than $500,000 in aid.

The swimming controversy began in the 2004-05 school year, when a district consultant recommended canceling the program. The program had cost Robbinsdale about $75,000 a year for a half-time teacher and for transportation expenses.

The district notified teachers that it would cancel the special classes, but failed to notify the parents of 31 children in the program as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Silbernagel complained to the state, saying the program was important for her daughter, Stacey Anthony, now 18. She had struggled to overcome the effects of serious brain damage to compete in adaptive team sports, which are recognized by the Minnesota State High School League. She now attends a transition program in another district.

Anthony has loose joints, and swimming helps strengthen them, said Silbernagel, who has coached Special Olympics for more than 10 years.

The Education Department determined that the district violated the law in Anthony’s case and applied its corrective order to 30 other children in adaptive swimming. The school district appealed, arguing the state went too far in applying the order to others who hadn’t complained.

The Appeals Court disagreed, saying that if violations are found, the department is obliged to address it for all children with disabilities.

The district argued that the parents had been notified in form letters and at IEP meetings of the district’s decision to cancel the classes. But the Appeals Court found the blanket notices to be legally deficient.

“Without such notice, parents could not knowingly and intelligently consent to the deletion of … swimming services in their children’s IEPs,” the court wrote.

Mack said the district would consider whether to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. But he said his personal preference is to move on. Staff members failed to follow proper procedures and have learned from that mistake, he said.

However, Mack left the door open to possible “rulemaking at the state, or legislative action to gain control of procedures within the Department [of Education].”

The Appeals Court opinion was written by Judge Natalie Hudson, and joined by Judges Bruce Willis and David Minge.

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

Dan Browning • dbrowning@startribune.com

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