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Monday, September 26, 2011

A Case in Atlanta

Litigation over special education can be expensive, both for families and school districts. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports:
When the police came, Stefan Ferrari’s teacher described Oct. 21, 2008, in her classroom for autistic children as “a regular, ordinary day.”

Perhaps it was, except for the tiny digital recorder sewn into the collar of Stefan’s shirt.

The device, planted by Stefan’s mother, collected eight hours and 19 minutes of sound, much of it the banality of yet another school day for a non-verbal 10-year-old. It also captured the teacher and her colleagues talking about sex and martinis. It picked up the teacher’s teasing Stefan after he ate pizza from the trash. And it chronicled the threat of a “be-quiet hit” to a crying child, followed by the repeated slaps of an adult’s hand against Stefan’s bottom.

That single day in an Atlanta classroom led to lawsuits in state and federal courts, to the teacher’s firing, to threats of criminal charges — against Stefan’s parents — and, finally, to what may have been the inevitable fracture of the boy’s family. Atlanta Public Schools spent $1.1 million of taxpayers’ money fighting Stefan’s family in court before agreeing this summer to pay private school tuition and therapeutic expenses into his adulthood.
When Stefan Ferrari’s family asked Atlanta Public Schools to pay to educate the autistic child in private schools, the district decided to respond aggressively. It turned out to be expensive:
  • $788,593: Fees the district paid through August 2011 to Jones, Cork & Miller, a Macon law firm, for the Ferrari case. The firm is expected to submit additional bills.
  • $236,523: Fees the district agreed to pay the Ferraris’ lawyer, Jonathan Zimring.
  • $38,958: Expense reimbursements to Jones, Cork & Miller, through August 2011.
  • $30,270: Payments to the district’s consultants and expert witnesses.
  • $1,094,344: TOTAL
Those expenses do not include money the district agreed to pay into a trust fund set up for Stefan Ferrari. Lawyers for the school district have indicated in court records that the Ferraris sought between $600,000 and $1 million, although those figures are unconfirmed. The district’s lawyers say a federal education privacy law requires that the settlement — even its value — be kept confidential.