Judge dismisses federal special education suit
WILLMAR -- A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the Willmar School District, several administrators and a special education teacher.
The suit had been filed by a mother, Jackie Nelson, who alleged that her child had been mistreated by the teacher, Lisa Van Der Heiden, through an excessive use of physical restraining holds and by placing the girl in a locked timeout room at Lincoln Elementary School.
The suit also claimed that school administrators knew of the treatment and did nothing to stop it.
Lawyers for the defendants praised U.S. District Judge David S. Doty for a well-written and well-reasoned decision.
However, Nelson's lawyer said Tuesday afternoon that she plans to file an appeal to the decision today. "Essentially, it's open season on children with disabilities," Margaret O'Sullivan Kane said.
In his ruling filed Tuesday, Doty said the claims against individuals who were acting in their official capacities were redundant to similar claims made against the school district.
Regarding Van Der Heiden's treatment of the child, he quoted a previous court ruling in writing, "Where an authorized professional's treatment of a disabled individual 'is not a substantial departure from accepted professional judgment, practice, or standards,' her actions are reasonable."
Doty also pointed out that some claims are limited because they were filed after the child's mother removed her from Willmar schools. Nelson has said she transferred her daughter out of the district when school officials said they could not guarantee Van Der Heiden and the child would have no contact.
Van Der Heiden's attorney Laura Tubbs Booth and Nancy Blumstein, lawyer for the other defendants, said Tuesday afternoon that they were pleased with the ruling.
"We're very happy with the result," Blumstein said. The decision showed that the claims weren't supported by sufficient facts, she said.
Van Der Heiden "is very relieved and pleased to have this step done," Booth said. "She is extremely appreciative of the support she received from so many people. ... She believes the child had an absolute right to use the process."
Doty's ruling was what she anticipated, Booth said. "I think the court really gave us a strong statement."
In considering a motion to dismiss, the judge is to assume that all the facts presented by the plaintiffs are true, she said. Even with that assumption, she added, he found that "there were still not sufficient facts to show that Lisa acted outside the scope of the (Individual Education Plan) or acted in a way that was improper."
Kane said Doty's ruling leads to the view that Van Der Heiden's treatment of the child was reasonable because it was "tangentially related to the IEP."
Doty also said that the claims belonged in an administrative hearing, but that avenue was blocked when Nelson removed her child from the Willmar School District. "Because there's no access to an administrative hearing, there's no remedy," Kane said.
"Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that the suffering of this child is being blithely disregarded by everybody," Kane said. "Jackie must feel awful, like the suffering her child endured means nothing. ... That's sad, you know, it's heartbreaking."
The appeal is likely to take at least a year, and that's why she plans to file it right away, Kane said. She expressed confidence that the Eighth Circuit Court will overturn the decision.
"The law is very clear, you can't restrain children for no reason," she said. "It has to be for reasons of safety and danger. ... You don't put a 6-year-old in locked seclusion because they're irritating you, and that's what this woman did."
The federal complaint was filed in December 2007, but many of the issues stem back to the teacher's treatment of Nelson's child during her first and second-grade years, in the 2004-05 and 2005-06 school years at Lincoln Elementary.
The complaint filed in December 2007 alleged that Van Der Heiden denied Nelson's child access to a restroom and also forced her to sit at a study carrel-type desk without moving. It also alleged similar mistreatment of other children, including hair-pulling and shouting.
In their court filings, the defendants denied all the allegations.
The state Department of Education investigated Van Der Heiden's treatment of the child and found numerous violations of state and federal special education laws in her treatment of the child and in her documentation of incidents in her classroom.
The state also investigated three reports of maltreatment filed against Van Der Heiden. She was found guilty of maltreatment of Nelson's daughter by denying access to the restroom. She is appealing that finding in Kandiyohi County District Court.
The state Board of Teaching will monitor Van Der Heiden's teaching performance and compliance with regulations through February 2010, based on an agreement with the board reached last winter.