An Oregon student with multiple disabilities has won a court case that found the Dallas School District provided inadequate care and education.
The student, only identified as "Elise," has intellectual ability and the same education rights as all children under federal law. Her challenges include hearing and sight impairments, developmental delays and confinement to a wheelchair. Her health condition is such that she relies on special medications, including an oxygen tank, during the school day.
Elise is in sixth grade, and over the last three years in Dallas schools, she's endured dangerous lapses in medical care and illegal gaps in her education, according to a recent order from Oregon Senior Administrative Law Judge Joe L. Allen.
Attorney Diane Wiscarson, who represented the family in the case and is a veteran special education advocate, said Elise's experience in the Dallas School District stands out.
"I think this case is particularly horrible," Wiscarson said. She described disturbing problems that persisted to the point of risking the child's life.
On Jan. 7, 2014, Elise's oxygen tank was low during the school day, but her parent wasn't called to address the problem, according to the legal complaint. The oxygen level continued to go down, and when the school did try to call the parent, they tried her cellphone — even though the school had been advised that the parent couldn't receive cellphone calls at work.
By the end of the day, the tank was too low for Elise to board a school bus for the ride home. Finally, the school contacted the parent at work. The parent, who works as a 911 operator, called an ambulance to get the child necessary oxygen and a ride home.
The emergency may have been an alarming single day, but it was only one example of the safety risks, educational neglect and botched communication that Elise had in Dallas schools.
That event reflected improper, even dangerous patterns uncovered during the complaint process under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act.
Wiscarson said the morning procedure of getting Elise ready for a day at school relied on both parents and school staff to ensure her health.
"One of their responsibilities was to check the student's backpack to make sure the medications, oxygen, food — that everything was in there," Wiscarson explained.
Wiscarson said the parent would check the supplies, too, but there are numerous instances in the court records of communication problems about the child's care. Wiscarson recalled one of the worst examples.
"They had a special education teacher who instructed the nurse, 'You don't tell the parent if any medication is missing out of there — that's not your job,'" Wiscarson said.
Wiscarson cross-examined a school aide about that incident at the administrative hearing. She asked if the person understood the medications were necessary for the child's safety.
"She said she did understand that — and she did that anyway," Wiscarson said, arguing following such advice led to "very life-threatening" situations for a child like Elise.
The 61-page complaint and the 119-page judge's order go into extensive detail about lapses in the school district's provision of service for Elise. Some are problems on particular days, like the oxygen shortage in 2014.
But any of the issues point to ongoing problems, such as trouble finding substitute nurses for Elise, failure to properly maintain and update a legally-required education plan, and implementing changes without the parent's permission.
Wiscarson said it was clear from the state's administrative hearing that Dallas teachers don't know Elise's abilities.
"The people who testified for the school district did not know what she was capable of – or not. So that's the first step, is to figure that out," Wiscarson said.
The district was ordered to provide "compensatory education" because Elise lost ground in recent years. But that was only part of the judge's sweeping order against the Dallas school system. Allen also ordered the school to train its staff to better handle the needs of students with disabilities.
The Dallas School District did not respond to a request for comment.