Defendants in special education suit file for dismissal

WILLMAR -- The defendants are seeking to dismiss a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the Willmar School District, a special education teacher and several administrators last year.

WILLMAR -- The defendants are seeking to dismiss a federal civil rights lawsuit filed against the Willmar School District, a special education teacher and several administrators last year.

The lawsuit claims that the teacher, Lisa M. Van Der Heiden, mistreated a special education student through excessive use of physical restraint and a time-out room at Lincoln Elementary School in Willmar. It also claims that administrators knew of the situation and did not stop it.

In another development related to the case, Van Der Heiden has lost her appeal of a determination of maltreatment concerning the same child who is the subject of the federal lawsuit.

The state Department of Education, in a final determination from the commissioner of education, found that Van Der Heiden violated state statute by denying the child access to the bathroom in March 2005.

The ruling is a private document, and public officials are not allowed to distribute it.


A private individual who is not bound by the state Data Practices Act provided it to the Tribune.

According to the ruling, signed by Deputy Commissioner Chas Anderson, a state investigator interviewed the child, Van Der Heiden and several paraprofessionals who worked at Lincoln.

A hearing referee had recommended that the finding of maltreatment be overturned, but the commissioner overruled that recommendation.

One of the paraprofessionals told the investigator that the child was in the hallway and said she needed to use the bathroom. The paraprofessional was taking her there when they met Van Der Heiden in the hallway. According to the paraprofessional, Van Der Heiden took the child to the resource room instead, saying they needed to discuss her behavior first, because she had been running in the hall.

The child subsequently had an accident in a time-out room.

According to the ruling from the commissioner's office, Van Der Heiden told an investigator that "she told (the child) they needed to talk first about why she was running in the hallway."

A law firm hired by the district investigated the incident and agreed the teacher denied the child immediate access to the bathroom. But the law firm concluded that there was no evidence that Van Der Heiden's actions were "in any way punitive, in bad faith or a gross misjudgment of the situation."

However, the decision of the commissioner concludes with this paragraph: "There may be situations where an issue needs to be addressed prior to use of a restroom by a student, including health and safety issues. This simply was not the case. The behavior of the student easily could have been addressed after use of restroom facilities."


Van Der Heiden's attorney Laura Tubbs Booth said that the commissioner's ruling should have no effect on the federal lawsuit.

"We are confident the federal court will dismiss all the allegations," Booth said.

Two motions to dismiss were filed in federal court this month. One lawyer represents all of the other defendants. Van Der Heiden is represented by Booth.

In addition to the school district itself, the lawsuit names School Board Chairman Mike Carlson, Superintendent Kathy Leedom, Principal Beckie Simenson and special education coordinator Susan Smith as defendants.

The memorandums attached to the motions list similar reasons for seeking dismissal.

They say that individual school district employees cannot be held individually liable under the federal Individual with Disabilities in Education Act. Both motions say that damages may be recovered from the school district but not from individuals under the act.

Both motions also say that the plaintiff failed to "exhaust the required administrative remedies" before filing the suit.

However, the child's family had sought a state administrative hearing but that effort was dismissed because it was filed after the child left the Willmar School District. Part of the federal suit is an appeal of the dismissal from the state administrative process.


A hearing on the dismissal motion is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. June 20 before U.S. District Court Judge David S. Doty at the federal courthouse in Minneapolis.

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