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Parents of Disabled Child Take Legal Action to Get Him Back in School

Attorney Tom Blessing represents the family of a disabled boy that filed a complaint with the Indiana Department of Education to get their son back in school.

A family from Fishers, IN, has filed a formal complaint with the Indiana Department of Education to get their son back in school. The severely handicapped boy who attends Hamilton Southeastern (HSE) Schools is in special education and is supposed to receive occupational, speech, and physical therapy at school, in addition to academic instruction. But he hasn’t been receiving any of those services since schools statewide were closed in March, and now it’s uncertain when he will go back.

After waiting patiently for five months, the parents decided to take action. “This isn’t about money. We just want our son back in school,” said the mother of the child named in the lawsuit. “When all this started, we were freaked out about COVID-19 like everyone else. Even though we were disappointed when school closed, we understood why and were willing to wait—fully expecting schools to re-open in August. Now that it’s August, we’re watching as other local schools re-open and parents get to send their kids back. But not us.”

The mother explained that over the summer, she had not heard HSE’s plan to reopen, so she started emailing the school with her questions. When school employees didn’t respond, she grew worried that her son would not be getting his much-needed therapies. She finally decided that she had to do something.

Hamilton Southeastern, the family’s school district, announced in July that it planned to reopen in early August, then two weeks later the school board voted to stay closed for at least another four weeks—even though other area schools were moving ahead with their reopening plans.

According to Tom Blessing, the family’s attorney, “When all this started back in March, I think people were willing to put up with closing schools for a couple of months. They weren’t happy, but they accepted it because they thought it would be a short-term inconvenience. I predicted back then that if schools didn’t re-open in August, parents would revolt. And now here we are.”

Now that schools have been closed for nearly five months, Blessing said that it’s actually more harmful to keep kids out of school than sending them back:

“Does the virus pose a risk? Of course. But so does keeping kids at home. Aside from kids having a lack of motivation, being out of school this long leads to isolation, withdrawal, anxiety, depression, academic regression, and behavioral problems. And kids with disabilities, single parents, low-income households, and people of color are disproportionately impacted by closing schools.”

According to Blessing, federal law requires public schools to serve students with disabilities. “The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act guarantees my client the right to a free appropriate public education. A local school board can’t take that away from my client or anyone else,” explained Blessing.

HSE said the reason for staying closed at least another month was out of concern for the health of its students and staff. But Blessing asked, “What about the health of their students if they don’t go back to school? No one’s asking that question.”

Blessing noted that HSE is allowing its employees to receive childcare at district schools, permitting YMCA to operate a children’s program in its school building, and student-athletes are being allowed to practice on school property.

“If it’s safe for them, it’s safe for my client,” Blessing said. He pointed out that several other area schools are re-opening. “Why is it safe for those kids to go back to school but not my client? It makes no sense,” said Blessing.

For more featured news on this case, visit WRTV 6WTHR 13, and IndyStar.