Wednesday, June 20, 2001

State found negligent
in education of
disabled student

The ruling means that
a jury will decide the
damage amount

By Debra Barayuga

A federal judge has ruled the state is liable for damages to a 19-year-old disabled Molokai student who was denied an appropriate education because of a shortage of qualified special-needs personnel.

The suit, brought in June 2000 by parents Stephen L. and Laverne L. on behalf of son Aaron L., is the first case going to trial for "deliberate indifference" by the state, said their attorney, Stanley Levin.

"The judge said they knew about severe shortage in services and didn't do anything."

The ruling Monday by Chief U.S. District Judge David A. Ezra means that the only issue left for a jury to hear is whether there was discrimination and the amount of damages Aaron is entitled to.

The case will go to trial in September.

The suit was brought under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which forbids the state from discriminating in providing education to disabled children.

Aaron was born with Down syndrome and has speech and language deficits, Levin said. He can speak only a couple of words at a time. He did satisfactorily in elementary school, but it was not until he entered high school that he stopped learning.

The family had alleged that shortages in qualified special-education teachers, speech therapists and educational aides resulted in their son being denied an appropriate education.

In his ruling issued Monday, Ezra found that state and Molokai district and school officials knew about the severe personnel shortage on Molokai yet did nothing.

Because of the lack of services, Aaron could not be mainstreamed into a regular- education classroom and did not progress in his last four years at Molokai High School.

At an administrative hearing requested by Aaron's parents in February 2000, the hearings officer determined that Aaron had been denied an appropriate education and services so that he could progress in his last four years of school.The state contended that it had acted in good faith and had not been intentionally indifferent or intentionally discriminatory to Aaron or his family. But the state did not offer any facts to support its position, Ezra said.Department of Education officials do not dispute that Molokai and other remote communities such as Hana on Maui, Lanai and the Leeward Coast on Oahu face continuous problems in recruiting qualified personnel willing to work in these areas.

"We fully acknowledge that there are difficulties in providing a full range of services to all who require them," said Department of Education spokesman Greg Knudsen.

He said the state is trying to meet that challenge by recruiting qualified personnel from out of state and providing services where needed.

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