A Belton family is taking the Killeen Independent School District to federal court after the family says the district failed to provide needed special education services for their child.
“The next step is for the other side to be formally served,” said attorney Sonja Kerr with Connell Michael Kerr, LLP, on Wednesday. “We’ll send their lawyers an informal copy, also.”
The 17-page lawsuit complaint, naming KISD and the Texas Education Agency as defendants, was filed on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court, Western District of Texas.
Last month, a state special education hearing officer sided with KISD and against the family of Samantha Moody, whose mother, Stephanie Moody, had filed a formal complaint with the TEA. Moody said that during the years her daughter attended KISD, the district failed to recognize two critical diagnoses — autism and an auditory disorder — and did not provide the correct special education services.
Moody said that her daughter was diagnosed with autism by a medical doctor and personnel with the Belton Independent School District, where she has attended school since 2020.
“The hearing officer found that the school provided the student a free appropriate public education (FAPE) even though it didn’t identify her with autism and it didn’t collaborate with the parents as it should have,” Kerr told the Herald, previously. “Even though the State of Texas had found this school had violated the law in its complaint from 2019, the school district did not have to do anything to compensate the student for that violation. So, this means that complaints to the State of Texas are also effectively meaningless …”
On July 10, 2019, Moody submitted a formal complaint to the TEA, alleging six violations of special education laws. After an investigation, the agency on Sept. 5, 2019, found five of the complaints to be in part or fully substantiated, according to the agency’s 23-page report.
“After I won, I entered a meeting thinking we were going to finally correct their wrongs,” Moody told the Herald previously.
Instead, KISD appealed the TEA’s decision and hired at least one attorney. Moody said she was successful during a second TEA investigation before the hearing officer sided with KISD in November.
Lawyers and money
Big money is spent by school districts to fight special education complaints.
“School districts have deep-pocket insurance to fight these cases,” Kerr said. “That certainly helps them and is unfair for parents. It also emboldens school districts to do whatever they want to do.”
Since 2017, KISD spent $140,691, on lawyer’s fees and expert witnesses in order to fight the Moodys’ special education complaint, according to information obtained by the Herald through a public information act request.
KISD stands by its special education services.
“The district will continue to agree with the Hearing Officer that Killeen ISD provided a free and appropriate public education,” according to KISD in a written statement on Friday.
There are 6,489 KISD students who receive special education services. The budget for the department has increased through the years, from over $35 million in fiscal year 2017 to $45.3 million in fiscal year 2022, according to KISD.
The one question that was not answered by KISD was if the district could have saved money by providing services for Samantha Moody.
Special ed complaint cases rarely won
Despite the good fight, special education hearing officers rarely side with students’ families.
According to TEA records of due process hearings involving districts statewide, in 2021, all 30 were decided in favor of the school district.
In 2020, six of 22 due process hearings — just over 27% — were decided in favor of the student’s family.
“I think there are a lot of reasons for this, but one could be that school districts have the ear of the hearing officers,” Kerr said. “There’s a substantial, statewide problem of the state not complying with special education requirements.”
After statewide special education problems have surfaced in recent years, the TEA has failed to implement the majority of the corrective actions it pledged to make to comply with the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, potentially putting some special education funding in jeopardy, according to the an Aug. 31 report in the Houston Chronicle, citing U.S. Department of Education sources.
Children with disabilities are entitled to have access to a “free appropriate public education,” or FAPE, under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Kerr said that, in past years, families had a better chance of being victorious in a TEA due process hearing.
“Recent decisions by hearing officers have been more pro-school than when I first started in 2016,” Kerr said. “Then, it was more 50-50. It started to change around 2020.”
It is unusual for a due process hearing case to be appealed to federal court, but it does happen. Kerr said that around 30 percent of her cases end up in federal court to appeal a due process hearing decision.
“I certainly don’t appeal every hearing officer’s decision,” she said. “We have to decide that there is a good basis for the appeal.”
If a family is not successful in federal court, the case may be appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“In theory, the step after that would be to try to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, but most of the time that’s not successful,” Kerr said.