Attorney Stephanie Langer has a saying for the enormous challenge of taking on a school district that's failed a special-needs student: It's like being "a gnat on the side of a cruise ship." Even with a strong case, a parent is in for a gruelingly long and expensive battle against a heavily lawyered system.
In February, Langer convinced an administrative law judge that Broward County Public Schools had violated an 8-year-old autistic boy's federally protected right to an education. The judge ordered the district to pay more than $20,000 in attorney's fees and costs.
But that victory was short-lived: The school district is now suing the child through his mother, arguing in federal court that it shouldn't have to pay a dime. The district, an attorney wrote in a complaint filed Monday, was "aggrieved by the findings and decision."
A spokeswoman for the school system — which in the past has been criticized for its handling of special-needs students, including in a commissioned report that showed students were enduring long bus rides, overcrowded classrooms, undertrained staff, and other issues — declined to comment.
Langer, who has handled special-needs lawsuits for more than ten years, says it's the first time she's seen a district take such an action and demonstrates the Goliath-like odds parents can face when trying to fight the system.
"It's so hard to now have to be sued by a school district when all you did was fight for your kid to get what they're legally entitled to," she tells New Times. "And to now be a defendant in a federal lawsuit? That's horrifying. It's horrifying."
The student in the case, identified only by the initials J.A.B., was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. Once he began attending school, he was placed in a special-needs classroom. He received intensive instruction for 90 percent of the day and spent the other 10 percent in a mainstream math class.
In November 2016, his mother, C.B., filed a request for a due process hearing, claiming his special needs were being overstated. She also said she hadn't been included in creating his "Individualized Education Plan," a legal document that spells out the services a school will provide to a special-needs child and how progress will be measured.
This April, Varn ruled that J.A.B.'s placement in a special-needs classroom for the majority of the day was appropriate. But in excluding his mother from the IEP, she wrote, the district had violated his right to the free and appropriate public education guaranteed by the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act.
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The district had also slashed his language services by a third as result of the November IEP, which was implemented without so much as a meeting with the mother. Varn found that change was "misguided" and resulted in "substantive harm" to the child. J.A.B., she wrote, was entitled to those services.
In September, Varn issued a decision awarding C.B. $16,706 worth of attorney's fees and $3,630 worth of costs. But the school board now claims in its federal lawsuit that the judge "lacked the authority and jurisdiction to award attorney's fees and costs under either federal or Florida law." The suit requests that the fees be quashed, vacated, or reversed.
Langer, who disagrees with the district's argument and says it's another delay tactic, calls the new lawsuit "frustrating."
"Delayed justice is denied justice," she says. "That's how it feels for the parents who win, because it's nice they win, but now what?"