Family, school district tussle over girl's need for special ed

The US flag blows in the breeze outside of St. Louis Park High School
The U.S. flag blows in the breeze outside of St. Louis Park High School in St. Louis Park on Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Laure Holden's daughter looked up through wisps of brown hair and made brief eye contact across the family's kitchen table in St. Louis Park. She paged through some drawings she'd done in a sketchbook — a character from a video game, imaginary creatures, fashion designs.

Even small things like this eye contact are a big step for Holden's daughter. MPR News is not naming the 16-year-old girl because she suffers from several health conditions, including severe anxiety, that have prevented her from leaving the house or attending classes at St. Louis Park High School for much of the past several years.

"In the mid-eighth grade, she suddenly stopped going to school," Laure Holden said. "She wanted to go, she's always wanted to go ... She was having anxiety attacks and couldn't get out the door."

Holden said she worked for hours every day trying to get her daughter up and out of the house.

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At the same time, Holden and the girl's father have been fighting in court with the St. Louis Park school district to get special education services they say their daughter needs to overcome her anxiety, succeed in school and graduate.

The court battle has gone on for almost a year. The family is pushing for one-on-one teaching to allow the girl to complete classes online and for other supports to help her live a regular life.

Holden said when the difficulties with school started, she didn't know anything about special education.

"It was a maze, to say it mildly, to figure out what, in fact, were her rights because I didn't even know she had those rights," Holden said.

The school district claims Holden's daughter isn't eligible for special education. In court papers the district said it evaluated her and found she doesn't qualify. The document says the district relied on standardized tests, a mental health screening, teacher input and parent questionnaires, among other measures.

"It's not just having a disability," said district lawyer Peter Martin. "You have to have a disability that meets criteria, that adversely affects educational performance and by reason thereof require specialized instruction and services."

One fact that comes up again and again in the court papers is that Holden's daughter has an unusually high IQ. When she comes to school, she completes her work and is an A student.

"One of the things that is in play here is that the student is immensely capable academically, seems to have, when at school, no social deficits of any sort [and] is not a behavior disruption or anything of that sort in the learning environment," Martin said.

Holden contended that her daughter's inability to get to school is part of her disability. Holden's lawyer Amy Goetz said the girl's strong academic performance doesn't negate her need for services.

"This law is for children who are really smart, too ... You don't have to fail, you don't have to be held back from class to class, you don't have to be cognitively disabled," Goetz said.

In March, an administrative law judge ruled in the family's favor. The judge ordered the district to pay for one-on-one tutoring and other services and reimburse the parents for private experts.

Holden's daughter now sees a school district teacher three times a week at a local library and meets with a social worker.

Martin estimated providing all the private services the judge ordered would cost the school district between $175,000 and $200,000 per year. Goetz said the order can be interpreted as allowing that some services be provided by the school district rather than privately, which would save money.

The school district has contested the administrative law judge's ruling in U.S. District Court. A federal judge recently agreed to stay enforcement of the decision while the case goes forward.

As school lets out for the summer, the dispute continues. Holden said the district wants to cut tutoring back to once a week over the summer.

"We're finally getting her out of bed, enrolled in life — she has more life, her eyes have some color now, they're bright again. And they're going to cut it, and I don't know what that's going to do to her," Holden said.

Martin said school officials are in discussion with the family about summer services.

"It's not unusual to have less service during the summer than you would during the school year ... There's an ongoing discussion about it, and we certainly have been listening," Martin said.

Meanwhile, legal fees keep mounting on both sides.

Martin estimated the district's fees and expenses for the case total about $175,000 so far. A district spokesperson said virtually all of the cost has been covered by the district's insurer.

Goetz estimated the family has incurred about $150,000 in legal fees and costs so far, plus more for medical experts and private services.