suit moves to appeals court
by Mary Spicuzza, Seattle Times, July 2003
For more articles like this
The mother of an
autistic boy says hearing him called "stupid" and "crazy" by his
kindergarten classmates was only part of the problem, according
to court records. And she says the relentless teasing is only
part of the reason that his family has filed a lawsuit against
the Federal Way School District. The boy's parents say the staff
of a Federal Way elementary school failed to "intervene about
the teasing situations" and that the district didn't protect the
boy from ongoing harassment, court records say. Like his
parents, the boy is identified by his initials in court
"It could lead to larger problems down the road," the boy's
mother says in court documents. "If one thing is OK for them to
do to (M.L.), then everything else is OK for them to do to (M.L.)."
The problems began in September 2000, when the boy started
kindergarten in Federal Way. His mother says the teasing began
the first day of class, when she heard little boys making fun of
M.L., who is developmentally disabled as well as autistic. She
says she also heard children mimicking the "harpy sort of scream
sound that he makes when he's trying to talk," according to
His mother says she repeatedly reported teasing incidents, but
that M.L.'s teacher and other staff members failed to address
the problem, according to court records. She withdrew her son
from school shortly after the first week because, she says, the
Jim Lobsenz, the family's lawyer, says the district failed to
meet the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act (IDEA), a federal law that ensures that all
children with disabilities have free and appropriate public
education — complete with services designed to meet their needs
— available to them. He says the family was forced to remove M.L.
from school to protect him.
The U.S. District Court in Seattle ruled in favor of the school
district last year. But next month, the case will be back in
court — this time in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Christopher Hirst, lawyer for the Federal Way School District,
says that both sides have filed their briefs and that he expects
to be back in court in early August.
Hirst declined to discuss specifics of the case, because case
files are sealed, but says the case is unlike any he's come
across in his more than 25 years as a lawyer.
"I don't know of any case in which a court has determined that a
school district has been found responsible for the teasing by
peers of a disabled child," he said.
The court's decision potentially could change policies
throughout the 9th Circuit, which includes Alaska, Washington,
Oregon, Idaho, California, Montana, Hawaii, Arizona, Nevada,
Montana, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
The case also is returning to court at a time when schools
throughout Washington are focused on anti-bullying policies.
Legislation passed last year requires that Washington school
districts have anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies in
place by Aug. 1.
The Federal Way School District has had an anti-harassment
policy since 1995 and updated it in March to comply with the new
legislation, according to district spokeswoman Diane Turner.
Advocates for children and the disabled all seem to applaud the
new anti-bullying laws. But they say policies alone can't solve
the problem, whether it's teasing or other methods of
"It's a first step. It's definitely a good first step," said
Jean Carpenter, executive director of the Washington State
Parent Teacher Association. "But bullying is still going to
Carpenter says she doesn't know how "teasing" will be defined in
the new policies, but she says school districts need to
understand that bullying behavior can be physical, emotional or
But Lobsenz insists that the new policies have nothing to do
with his case.
"It's not a policy issue," he said. "Just having the policy
isn't enough. If you don't follow it, it's not going to work."
Mary Spicuzza: 206-464-3192 or
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to