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MJC PARTNER TOM BLESSING TESTIFIES AGAINST LEGISLATION

“This legislative session of the Indiana General Assembly has seen a major campaign against parents of children with disabilities being waged by public school districts, their attorneys and insurance companies,” said MJC partner and education law attorney Tom Blessing. “These special interest groups are supporting legislation designed to deter and penalize parents for asserting their rights under federal law. This legislation targets special needs parents—people I represent.”

Blessing testified before the Indiana House Education Committee in opposition to an amendment to SB 562, which Indiana public school districts (led by ICASE) and their attorneys are pushing in order to form what they’re innocuously calling an “education dispute resolution working group” consisting of 11 members. This “working group” will be tasked to “study and make recommendations” on various subjects, but according to Blessing, “The real reason behind it is that parents of children with disabilities are learning their rights and asserting them when schools violate the law—which drives ICASE crazy. Instead of following existing law, members of ICASE want lawmakers to change it, and this working group is the first step.”

Blessing went on to explain that as parents learn more about their rights and advocate for their children, this sometimes leads to litigation, so this working group would be asked to “study the cost of educational disputes.” Three of the proposed members of this group are public school administrator special interest groups—all of whom are presumably lobbying in support of this bill. Blessing said that one of the proposed members of this group is also leading the charge to get it passed into law: “Funny how ICASE, which is lobbying in support of this bill, made sure that it is one of the members of the working group. Talk about a conflict of interest.” He also explained that “Many, if not most, of the school districts supporting this legislation have found themselves in litigation for violating federal law regarding the rights of students with disabilities and I’ll surmise that many, if not most, of their members are represented by the same law firm which is lobbying for this bill.”

Blessing has a good idea of what’s behind this bill: “I assume that ICASE and its paid lobbyist attorneys are telling lawmakers that its member districts are incurring attorney fees as a result of litigation, so we need this group to ‘study the cost of educational disputes.’ What I assume ICASE is NOT telling lawmakers is why its members are ending up in litigation.”

Although Blessing said that he was glad he got to testify, he heard testimony from school administrators whose districts he’d had cases against in support of this bill. “It was tough to sit there and listen to these school people complain about the cost of litigation when it’s their own failure to comply with the law which landed them there in the first place.” One school administrator who testified in support of the bill works for a school district which had expelled a male student with Down syndrome and charged him with sexual harassment under Title IX for tickling a female student. The case went to hearing and the Independent Hearing Officer ruled against the school district. “In that case, litigation could have been completely avoided if the school had just followed the law and used some common sense.”

Blessing explained that the law already provides a detailed dispute resolution process, which includes a mandatory resolution period (with a face-to-face meeting between schools and parents), a free complaint and investigation process with the Indiana Department of Education, free mediation and facilitated IEP meetings—all at no cost to parents or school districts. “I told the committee about these procedures and said that the working group being proposed strikes me as a solution in search of a problem.”

Blessing summed it up this way: “If there’s a problem that ought to be studied, it’s not that parents are asserting their rights. It’s that schools are violating them. If Indiana lawmakers really want to help their constituents and not some special interest groups, then they should form a working group to look into that.”

Feel free to contact Mr. Blessing directly if you have questions about the legislation or special education law: [email protected]

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