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Atlanta Schools Told to Pay up to $136,600 For Private Tuition: Student's Dyslexia was Misdiagnosed

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Kristina Torrds, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, March 23, 2007

A federal judge has ordered Atlanta Public Schools to pay for a former student misdiagnosed as mentally disabled to go to private school to get his high school diploma.

The student, Jarron Draper, now 20, has been out of school since June, stocking shelves at Target and working full time as a security guard while he and his family fought for an education that he hopes will get him into college.

School psychologists evaluated Draper as "mildly intellectually disabled" in 1998, when he was a fourth-grader. Five years later, he was still reading at about a third- or fourth-grade level when he was found instead to have a learning disability: dyslexia.

By then, Draper was a rising 10th-grader at Benjamin E. Mays High School.

That he was re-evaluated at all is owing to protests filed by his aunt Denice Smith Morgan and his grandmother Hattie A. Smith, who argued that his struggles had nothing to do with mental impairment.

The system also missed a federal mandate requiring the re-evaluation of a special needs student every three years.

School system officials, through spokesman Joe Manguno, declined comment Thursday except to say, "We have received the judge's decision, we are reviewing it and we are considering our options."

The system could appeal.

According to U.S. District Judge Marvin Shoob's 55-page ruling, Atlanta "failed to provide [Draper] with a basic floor of opportunity" to get his education, as federal law requires. His order in part upheld a ruling early last year by an administrative state judge.

Both the system and Draper appealed that ruling, but for different reasons. Their appeals are the reason Shoob reviewed the case.

The system argued that school officials met their obligation to give Draper a "free appropriate public education" as required by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

They also protested the "remedy" offered Draper, which included a cap of $15,000 a year good up until June 2009 toward private school tuition, as well as $11,000 in reimbursement for a family loan used to pay for a brief period of private tutoring.

Draper appealed in large part because the money wasn't enough to pay for the services he needed.

In his ruling, Shoob threw out the $11,000 reimbursement, saying the amount was not properly documented.

However, Shoob ordered the system to pay at least $34,150 annually for up to four years as Draper attends the Cottage School, an Atlanta private school, to get his high school diploma.

"All we wanted was for Jarron to be taught to read, get help with his math and graduate with a degree that would help him get into college," said Smith Morgan, whose return home to Atlanta from a U.S. Air Force career prompted her involvement with her nephew's schooling.

"It was like fighting Goliath," she said. "They wouldn't provide basic services to teach a child to read? We won. That says something."

The ruling comes as state lawmakers debate creating a program in Georgia that would provide special education students with the option of leaving public schools to attend private campuses through a taxpayer-funded tuition voucher.

David M. Monde, a lawyer with Jones Day who represented Draper and his family, said he didn't know if voucher proponents would use the case as an example for their cause.

A commercial litigator by specialty, Monde has a 14-year-old son with cerebral palsy and got involved with Draper's case through a program at his firm that helps families with limited means.

"I know how frustrated parents get dealing with public systems about their special needs children," Monde said. Shoob's order, he said, "shows if parents fight hard enough, the courts will insist school systems honor their obligation under the law."

Monde said he will ask the court to make the school system pay Draper's attorney's fees, which he pegged to be in the low six figures.
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