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Medford family seeks district remedies for troubled teen

123rf.com
A complaint filed with Education Department asks district to train staff, pay for schooling of student with special needs, sexually aggressive behavior

A Medford family has lodged a complaint against the Oregon Department of Education, accusing officials with the agency and the city’s school district of failing to provide an “appropriate education” for a teenager in their care who was expelled from South Medford High School and showed a pattern of sexually offensive behaviors.

The document, known as a due process complaint, was filed Dec. 14 by a couple who looks after “John,” a 17-year-old currently enrolled in an out-of-state facility designed to provide treatment for boys struggling with disorders and addiction.

The couple, who asked for anonymity in this article, claim, among other grievances, that the Medford School District did not agree to place the student at White River Academy in Delta, Utah, which is what jump-started their decision to file a DPC.

“For me, it’s about (John) getting an appropriate education, but also the safety of the students at South,” said the wife of John’s legal guardian. “They are going out of their way to say, ‘No, (John) needs to come back here.’ This is a kid that clearly has issues, and they’re fighting for him to come back on campus, and that’s terrifying for me.”

John’s legal guardian, who is also his half-brother, hoped the resolution to the complaint would involve district administrators and the high school “following the right procedures and doing right by all their students.”

“We’ve got four more kids that are going to be potentially going through this school, and I want to make sure it’s a safe environment for them,” he said. “Right now, I don’t feel it’s safe. I feel there’s a lot of poor management of these services or they’re not happening at all.”

A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Education said it does not comment on pending due process complaint cases.

The Medford School District offered comments, but declined to offer specifics on this case.

“The district believes that it offers appropriate educational services to both its general education students and students experiencing disabilities,” Natalie Hurd, communications and community relations director for the district, wrote in an email. “Due to federal privacy laws governing student records and information, however, the district cannot comment specifically about this particular case or student.”

The couple seeks a number of solutions for Medford schools to provide him a Free and Appropriate Public Education. That includes having the district recognize White River Academy as the proper place for John to receive education; evaluating him and making a plan for his education; providing him compensatory education services over three lost school years; and training school employees on how to work with him.

The couple would also like the district to reimburse them for the cost of John’s attendance at White River Academy and all legal fees related to the complaint.

“(The guardian and his wife) asked very early on for the district to help them pay for this,” said Taylar Lewis, the couple’s attorney. “They let the district know exactly what was going on, gave them a lot of details about what had happened, and the district decided they were not going to pay for this prior to holding a meeting to talk about it.”

The couple wishes to solve this dispute via mediation. A pre-hearing conference before an administrative law judge is scheduled near the end of the month, according to Lewis.

“It is different (from) a civil lawsuit,” she said. “For special education claims, this is what your legal remedy is. You’re required to exhaust your administrative remedies before you can go to state or federal court.”

Lewis explained mediation could occur through a mediator assigned by the Oregon Department of Education who is a neutral third-party in the matter.

“If you can get the issues resolved at mediation, then, of course, you would withdraw the complaint and move on,” she said.

Not much is known about the educational path of John, a foster child, until the 2014-15 school year, when he was living in Oklahoma. While there, he underwent an evaluation, indicating he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

John struggled academically and got into trouble. He moved to several other states before enrolling in the Medford School District during the 2018-19 academic year. It was only a few months before the start of school that John’s half brother became his legal guardian and John moved to the valley to live with him. Neither John’s guardian nor his wife were aware of the boy’s troubled past.

By the time he moved to Medford, John already had an individualized educational program, a plan composed by school officials to provide an appropriate education for students with special needs.

But not long after he began classes, when district officials started searching for John’s records, they found an expired IEP and that he would need one from Oregon “ASAP,” the complaint states.

In the case of a child who has an IEP from another state, the district has two choices, according to Lewis.

Officials can “either take the IEP they can adopt it … or they can say, ‘we need some new evaluations, we need to figure out where the gaps are with (this student) and … draft their own IEP,” she said. “What Medford seemed to do in this case is say, ‘Oh, there’s an IEP, look at that, we’ll get around to doing our own at some point.’”

But in January of 2019, before such a program could be developed, John was expelled from South Medford after it was found through a district investigation that he was sexually aggressive toward a classmate.

John was sent home to complete coursework, but he did not receive the material he was supposed to work on, according to the wife of his legal guardian.

“This is really unfortunate and concerning seeing as we are at the end of the semester and he is not being given the opportunity to complete any work,” she wrote to district officials in an email, which was quoted in the complaint. “Thus, he is seemingly being forced to fail.”

The guardian's wife said she was persistent with district officials until they “finally” set him up at the “continuation school” on Oakdale Avenue in Medford for the duration of his expulsion.

An then, an Oregon IEP was finally officially recommended — by a district psychologist, who wrote an evaluation report on John. A meeting to develop the program was held between district officials and the couple, who later complained that the IEP lacked ways for John to get mental health resources or isolate him from a regular educational setting. The complaint claims that some of John’s teachers were not aware he had an IEP or even knew how it worked.

“There have been several IEPs developed since the initial one — as there should be — you should have one at least once a year,” Lewis said. “The most recent IEP, though, there were a lot of concerns that it wasn’t addressing his mental health needs, that this was not a restrictive enough environment to allow him to make progress and to keep him and other students safe.”

In March of 2019, two district officials emailed one another saying that before John came back to South Medford the special education team needed to create “a safety plan” — about which John’s caretakers say they never found any records.

“Nobody reached out to us at all, and he was going to school every single day,” the guardian's wife said. “Where’s the prevention, where’s the protection for students? Now, South is saying, ‘We’re a safe, good environment; (John) can be here.’”

John returned to South Medford in April of 2019. The following school year, a teacher reported John inappropriately touching a student outside the library on two different occasions.

“The same problems that had been happening in the past that were occurring again — and it’s not clear what the district was doing to resolve those problems, other than just increasing school staff,” Lewis said.

When the pandemic forced students into remote learning, John continued to struggle academically and misbehave.

“We had no idea he was using his school laptop” inappropriately, the guardian's wife said. “The school device is supposed to be protected. That was a trigger for him and eventually led to the abuse of my daughter.”

In December of 2020, the couple had to file a police report against John when a much younger relative reported she was sexually assaulted by him. That incident is one that causes the guardian's wife to be concerned about the idea of him returning to a traditional classroom environment.

“When it comes down to it, you’ve got a kid who (has) already abused other kids at South — with and without repercussions,” she said. “(The school) is just trying to welcome him back with open arms, and I’m terrified.”

In February of 2021, John enrolled in STAR GUIDES, which provides treatment for juvenile sex offenders, but the executive director later noted that the boy was making “slow progress in his treatment and will require ongoing treatment” beyond that program.

“It is our recommendation that (the student) transition to a structured residential school setting that specialize(s) in working with sexual behavior disordered youth,” the executive director wrote in a letter to the family.

The guardian's wife describes John’s time at White River as “a roller coaster ride.”

“A lot has come out,” about John’s past, she said, before adding, “we’re hoping that he will turn his attitude around and participate in his treatment.”

John’s half-brother guardian added, “I feel like he’s still got a long way to go.”

“With (John’s) education, I’m hopeful he cracks those books and wraps everything up, because he’s got so many gaps in his foundation,” he said. “Every place he gets put, they’re trying to fill those gaps to get him to where he is supposed to be, so (are we) optimistic? Definitely. That’s the kind of people we are.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.