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District Is Told to Pay Disabled Boy’s Costs : Ojai: Court says schools are responsible for hiring therapists to teach the teen-ager to walk and feed himself.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A federal court has ruled that the Ojai school district must pay the family of a severely disabled child $97,000 in legal fees and hire therapists to teach the 15-year-old boy to walk and feed himself.

But school officials said Thursday they have already appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The ruling Monday by the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles is the latest twist in a legal battle between the Ojai Unified School District and the family of Bion Jackson. Under the decision, school officials must pay to train the boy to become self-sufficient enough to attend a state-run school for the blind.

Besides being unable to hear or see, Bion was born with a curved spine. He has never been toilet-trained or learned to dress himself.

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And he communicates with his family mainly through a private sign language. He gets around by crawling, said Coleen Ashly, an advocate from the Greater Los Angeles Council for the Deaf who represents the family.

The district has yet to negotiate with the family on the specific training that Bion requires and how much it will cost.

But the federal court ruled that the district is liable for at least $104,200 in other charges--the $97,000 in legal fees plus $7,200 for an educational assessment made of Bion last month.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide in October whether to hear the case.

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Richard and Elizabeth Jackson, who adopted Bion as an infant, could not be reached for comment.

Ojai Supt. Andrew Smidt said paying the fees will reduce the district’s financial reserves to a level below the state’s recommended minimum for school districts.

School officials said their main concern, however, is to resolve the legal issue of whether public schools must pay exorbitant expenses to educate the severely disabled outside of their home districts when local programs are available.

“The issue is not, ‘Should this child be given a high-quality education,’ ” Smidt said. “The question is, who delivers it and at what cost?”

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Ojai officials maintain that Bion was receiving a good education at special-education schools run by the Ventura County Superintendent of Schools, which the boy attended from the time he was 4 years old to age 11.

But Bion’s family has argued the county-run schools failed to meet his needs.

If the county schools had been teaching Bion adequately, he would have learned to walk, feed and dress himself, Ashly said.

She and Jackson family attorney Jeffrey Johnsen said past assessments of the boy by state education specialists have shown he is capable of learning those skills.

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Recently, the California School for the Blind in Fremont has said it will admit Bion if he first learned basic survival skills.

But the Ojai school district would have to pay 10% of the school’s costs in addition to training Bion to walk, feed himself and go to the bathroom on his own. Although the Fremont school is public, Ashly said its per-student cost is at least $10,000 a year.

But that might be cheaper for the Ojai district than if Bion were to attend a private school in Los Angeles, where a lower court decided the boy should go.

In that opinion last September, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Ojai school district must pay to send Bion to the Foundation for the Junior Blind School, which specializes in children with multiple severe disabilities.

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In addition to paying 30% of the school’s tuition, the school district was required by the court to pay for Bion to live with his grandparents in Los Angeles.

The total cost would have been about $1,400 a month, including $300 a month for rent, $35 a day for care-taking fees and $5 a day for food.

Educators said at the time it was the first case they could recall when a federal court had ordered a school district to pay a child’s relatives for such care.

The Foundation for the Junior Blind School decided after the appeals court ruling that it could not serve Bion, Johnsen said.

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But last October, Ojai officials requested that the Supreme Court review the case. Smidt said Thursday that the district still hopes the high court will overturn the appeals court ruling, which he says sets a dangerous precedent for school districts.

Ashly said, however, the issue is not about legal precedents, but about the school district’s willingness to work with families of the disabled.


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