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State Pays 4.4 million to Autistic Children Denied Educational Services


By Lusy Young-Oda, Honolulu Star Advertiser

Years after removal of federal court oversight of Hawaii’s education of learning-disabled students, a landmark settlement this week highlights ongoing problems — and sends a strong reminder of the state’s obligation to educate all children and strengthen school protocols against “deliberate indifference.”

The state agrees to pay $4.4 million to settle a lawsuit with a couple accusing the Department of Education of having failed to provide their daughters with appropriate autism-specific services during their formative years in the 1990’s. The DOE should sharpen efforts to provide disabled students with proper education alongside general-education children, sending the clear message from administrators all the way down to campus educators that it might be penny-wise thought pound-foolish to dismiss special needs.

A suit filed in 2000 by the parents of autistic sisters Natalie and Michelle Horsley, now 20 and 21, alleged that they were victims of “deliberate indifference” by the DOE and were not receiving appropriate education. Proper services would have increased the sisters’ progress towards being able to live at least semi-independently and work in a “sheltered environment,” the parents contended.

At the time of the filing of the Horsley suit, Hawaii’s special-education system had drawn attention since 1993, when the mother of Maui special-needs student Jennifer Felix filed what would become a huge class-action lawsuit on behalf of all learning-disabled children in the state. Court oversight of the system was lifted in 2005, when the DOE pledged to meet federal standards requiring a free, appropriate education, as arduous and expensive as those rules were and continue to be.

However, concerns continued about the quality of services provided, even though spending on special education in the 2008-09 school year had grown by nearly 40 percent since 2004 to $542 million, mostly for personnel and behavioral health services.

Over the past decade, the number of public school students with autism had doubled to more than 1,300 of the 19,000 special education students, and some parents complain that the growth in autistic students has outpaced the increase in services. In a public school system with responsibility to all comers, educators need to remain open and vigilant to concerns, not dismissive.

Special-needs children have continued to perform poorly on state tests, and Hawaii has been shown to be last in the country for the amount of time those children spend outside of general-education classrooms — more that 80 percent compared with the national average of 50 percent in 2007.

The Horsley settlement — which needs approval by the state Legislature, governor and Board of Education — should put school districts across the country on notice, according to Susan Dorsey, lead attorney for the Levin Education Access Project, a non-profit that assisted the family with the case.

Attention should be taken most in Hawaii, where a state-commissioned report found that DOE funding and staff had induced “strong disincentives” to move special education to general education, lines of responsibility and accountability had become confusing, and staffing and services had varied, as special education students had continued to perform below progress targets.

To be sure, getting students to meet performance standards is a continual challenge, special-needs or not. Fortunately recognizing the continuing problem for special education, the DOE this year initiated eight “centers of educational excellence” to serve as model programs and provide training to teachers and staff. The department cannot be complacent in providing what is federally and judicially recognized as being necessary in providing appropriate education to all students.