Woodbridge family wins tuition fight

An independent hearing officer has ordered Prince William County to reimburse a Woodbridge family for private school tuition paid to educate their 15-year-old son.

Nadine Hallums, mother of William Terrance “T.J.” Hallums, contended the county school system misdiagnosed his learning disabilities for years and refused to address his specific needs. The Hallums last year requested a due process hearing within Virginia’s system to address school decisions made about T.J.’s education.

The hearing officer, David R. Smith of Fairfax, appointed by the Virginia Supreme Court, wrote in his May 29 decision:

Prince William did not follow regulations when it approved, without the Hallums being present, an independent education plan on Oct. 15, 2001, for T.J. despite requests for a postponement by Nadine Hallums because of a family emergency;

that this education plan for T.J. made by school officials did not sufficiently address T.J.’s auditory processing learning disability;

and the county should pay for his private tuition at Accotink Alternative Learning Center in Springfield as well as independent evaluations of T.J. that the Hallums paid for.

The base tuition at Accotink is $16,000, with individualized services adding to the cost. The county was ordered to reimburse the family back to when T.J. started at Accotink in December 2001.

“We won. I still can’t believe it,” said Nadine Hallums, who last month thought her chances were not good. “Total shock.”

Prince William Public Schools Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said they have not made a decision whether to appeal the decision. “Seldom do we appeal,” he said.

The county has 30 days to decide.

Kelly defended Prince William County schools’ special education program, in which 7,000 students are enrolled.

“We believe we have the capability here in the school system to meet the child’s needs or we would have never have gone this route,” he said. “We believe we have the capability of addressing youngster’s handicaps and the parents believe we don’t.”

He said the hearing officer’s findings do not disturb him, rather “what disturbs us is we lost,” Kelly said.

The school system’s case against the Hallums went further than just whether it provided T.J. with an appropriate individual education plan, or IEP, which lays out the specially designed instruction mandated under federal law for all special education students.

Prince William school officials testified that the Hallums never expressed any specific concerns about T.J.’s education.

Koeen Madsen, coordinator for special education at Benton Middle School where T.J. attended, said the parents did not give any specific concerns about how the school system was addressing his education, like with T.J.’s level of performance, and “that the only thing that they got from Mrs. Hallums were general expressions of concerns, but nothing specific,” according to Smith’s hearing report.

Smith’s decision went against those assertions by Madsen and Benton Middle School Assistant Principal Lynn Galgano.

“She [Hallums] may not have expressed her concerns with the degree of specificity that some could have done, nor to the satisfaction of the applicable Prince William personnel. In any event, Mrs. Hallums was clear enough to cause IEPs to be amended and her concern with math was a major contributing factor in the length of the process … Although Ms. Galgano intended to offer testimony with examples of how Mrs. Hallums did not specify her concerns, in the Hearing Officer’s view, it had the opposite effect of supporting Mrs. Hallums’ assertion that, on a consistent basis, she expressed her concerns to Prince William.”

Smith agreed with the assessment of the Hallums’ independent evaluators that T.J.’s primary deficit was auditory processing ability.

County school psychologist Kristin Miller testified that T.J.’s intellectual functioning was in the low average range, against the opinion of Hallums’ evaluator, Ronald S. Federici, a board-certified developmental neuropsychologist, who said T.J. had a higher level of intellectual function.

Smith wrote T.J.’s IEP should have been specific to auditory processing.

“Prince William has not demonstrated that it will approach T.J.’s primary deficit as such; accordingly, the Benton program is inappropriate for T.J.,” Smith wrote.

Due process hearings were designed to be an informal way to resolve disputes, but in practice, schools and parents use lawyers for the hearings. The state and federal government are reviewing ways to reform the process to make it less like a courtroom.

Prince William is represented by Kathleen S. Mehfoud, from Reed, Smith, Hazel and Thomas law firm in Richmond. She represents approximately 80 school boards in Virginia.

Similar Posts