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Lawsuit against Willmar special education teacher denied another hearing by federal appeals court

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WILLMAR -- The federal lawsuit against the Willmar School District, several administrators and a special education teacher regarding the treatment of a student will not be heard again by the federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals.

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However, a lawyer for the student is considering asking for a hearing before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The appeals court filed an order late last week denying a hearing by the full panel of Eighth Circuit judges.

A smaller three-judge panel had denied an appeal after a federal judge in Minnesota dismissed the case.

The lawsuit grew out of complaints about the child's treatment by the teacher, Lisa Van Der Heiden.

The suit alleges excessive use of physical restraining holds and of a seclusion room while Van Der Heiden was her special education teacher at Lincoln Elementary School in Willmar.

It also alleged that district administrators knew of the treatment and did nothing to stop it.

From the beginning, Van Der Heiden and school officials have maintained that the child was not mistreated in their care.

Margaret O'Sullivan Kane, Nelson's lawyer, said Monday she may seek a Supreme Court hearing. She has 90 days to file for a hearing before the court, which accepts a very small percentage of the cases submitted to it each year.

Kane said she would be studying the issue more thoroughly in the coming weeks before making a final decision.

The lawsuit has been hampered all along by the requirement that a family must file a complaint and request an administrative hearing before a child is removed to another school district.

In this case, the child's mother removed her from Willmar schools because school officials would not guarantee that the child would no longer have contact with Van Der Heiden.

Later, the mother was denied an administr-ative hearing be-cause she hadn't fi-led the complaint before re-moving her child from the school district.

When she appealed the denial, she was told she needed to exhaust her administrative options before filing in federal court.

The issue first came to light when the mother, Jackie Nelson, spoke to the Willmar School Board in early January 2007 and asked that Van Der Heiden be fired. The teacher was on paid administrative leave at that time, but the board took no official action regarding the request. A month later, another parent spoke to the board about the same teacher.

When Van Der Heiden returned to work, she was assigned at the Lakeview School in the adolescent treatment unit at the Willmar Regional Treatment Center. The unit houses students with severe mental illness. She is still assigned to that school.

Van Der Heiden has been the subject of several investigations in recent years. The Minnesota Department of Education found that she was guilty of maltreatment for denying a child access to a restroom, but she appealed that finding and won.

A state investigation in 2006 into her treatment of the Nelson child recorded numerous violations of state and federal regulations, including the way she used a time-out room and physical restraining holds.

The school district was required to provide supplemental training for Van Der Heiden and for other staff members after that report. However, Van Der Heiden and the district have said in court papers that they believed the investigation was flawed.

Van Der Heiden and the state Board of Teaching reached an agreement in February 2008 to monitor her performance for two years.

In that agreement, she denied any wrongdoing but agreed to the monitoring. If the agreement had not been reached, the state was ready to begin proceedings to determine if her license should be suspended.

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Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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