The Manhattan Beach school district and the state education department have agreed to pay more than $6.7 million to settle a long-running legal battle with the family of an autistic special education student.
The settlement agreement, approved last week by a federal district court judge, resolves the case that began in 1999, when Deborah and John Porter claimed that the Manhattan Beach Unified School District had failed to provide their son with a “free and appropriate public education” as required by state law.
The state’s special education hearing office found that the 6,500-student district had failed the Porters’ son in reading and language instruction and in socialization interventions and ordered the district to make corrections.
The Porters filed suit in U.S. District Court in 2000, claiming the district was dragging its feet in providing compensatory services.
This month’s settlement followed a December 2004 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Gary Allen Feess, who said it appeared the school district “has endeavored to use the power it has ... as a means of retaliating against the Porters” for their criticism and lawsuit. He found the state Department of Education had failed to oversee the district’s actions in the Porter case.
Deborah Porter, a paralegal for the law firm that handled her case, could not be reached for comment Thursday, but issued a statement through the law office’s public relations firm.
“No amount of money can compensate for the school district’s deliberate failure to provide an appropriate education at a crucial point in our son’s life,” she said in the statement. “This will provide for his future well-being, and we also hope this will force this school district, and all school districts, to do the right thing for other children.”
The Porters have asked that their 17-year-old son not be identified, as he still attends Mira Costa High School in the district. He has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
School district officials, in a statement issued Thursday, said the district “takes very seriously its legal obligations to this student and to the district’s entire special needs community, and is committed to ensuring that each and every student with a disability receives a free and appropriate public education.”
Supt. Gwen Gross, who joined the district three years after the suit was filed, said she believes the district has made great strides in improving its special education program in the last couple of years.
“It’s important we move forward, and I think we are doing that,” Gross said in an interview. She said the district had “worked very diligently and collaboratively” with the family and its attorneys over the last several months to reach a settlement.
The agreement calls for the Manhattan Beach district and the California Department of Education to pay nearly $1.6 million for a special needs trust for the student and almost $2.4 million for a trust for his parents.
An additional $1.1 million is being spent on a court-appointed special master to oversee the student’s education through June 2007, and the remainder of the settlement amount, nearly $1.7 million, goes to the Torrance law firm that represented the family, Wyner & Tiffany, according to the school district.
The district expects two of its insurance funds to pick up $4.4 million of its share of the settlement, with the state responsible for nearly $1.3 million. The district’s remaining obligation of about $1 million can be paid over five years and should not significantly affect its annual operating budget, Gross said.
Steven Wyner, a partner in the firm that specializes in representing students with disabilities, said in an interview Thursday he believes the settlement amount is a record payment in a special education case.
“We’re hopeful that our action on behalf of one student will benefit many others,” Wyner said. He noted the case has prompted the district to revamp its special education programs.