Judge rules MSD must pay family
A judge has ordered the Medford School District to pay for the costs of a student’s schooling in Utah after finding that school officials here failed to provide an adequate education to a former South Medford High School student before he was expelled and later sought treatment outside the state for inappropriate sexual behavior.
Jessica Toth, an administrative law judge for Oregon’s Office of Administrative Hearings, signed an order Aug. 8 finding the district “committed various violations” of the student’s right to a “free appropriate public education” under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act between late 2019 and 2021.
Toth ordered the school district to pay the student’s guardian $91,223.61 for the student’s cost of attending a Utah institution that provides treatment to teens while allowing them the chance to complete a high school education.
“The district believes this decision is legally flawed and is contrary to legal precedent set in this state involving other Oregon school districts including Ashland and Forest Grove school districts,” the Medford School District said in a prepared statement. “The district is currently reviewing its legal options including an appeal to federal district court.”
The school district’s attorney, Richard Cohn-Lee, noted the district has 90 days from the date of the judge’s decision to initiate an appeal. School officials had not decided yet whether to appeal, he noted.
The student’s guardian, who is his half-brother, declined to be identified for this story, consistent with his name being redacted from the judge’s order.
“I wanted our case to be public, so that in the event that we won, it would be a precedent and it would be something that other parents can look to, to know that the district is doing things inappropriately,” the guardian said. “If they’ve also been impacted, then they can use us and our case as a guiding point that there are students that are not receiving the services that they need.”
The student at the center of the case received an individualized education program in Florida — one of the several states he lived in as a foster child — before enrolling at South Medford High School in fall 2018. An IEP is meant to assess the student’s behavior and academic performance, and provide accommodations for him or her to be successful at school.
The guardian asserted in his complaint that Medford School District did not create an IEP for the student, as it should have, and school officials created one only after the student had been expelled for sexually assaulting two classmates.
The student was sent to alternative programming called “Medford Opportunity,” at Central High School. But, according to the guardian’s complaint, his half-brother returned to South even before the 2018-19 school year was over (the Medford School District told the Mail Tribune it would decline to provide information about the student, citing privacy laws).
At the start of the 2019-20 school year, the student was enrolled at South. But in March, 2020, the student went home for virtual instruction due to the pandemic, like the rest of his peers.
During that year, the student continued to struggle academically and even got into trouble, abusing the guardian’s animals at home and getting arrested for sexual abuse against a child in the home.
As the student struggled to learn during the pandemic lockdown, the guardian “unilaterally” enrolled him in Star Guides, a treatment program. Officials there recommended the student be sent to White River Academy in Delta, Utah.
But the district disagreed with that assessment, telling the guardian it could provide the student with appropriate intervention services when he returned to South. That sentiment triggered the guardian to get legal representation and eventually, in December, 2021, the guardian filed a due process complaint with the Oregon Department of Education.
The guardian said he was happy with the judge’s order for the district to pay him for the costs incurred by the academy.
“The kind of facility that he was put in wasn’t cheap,” the guardian said. “The last few years have been pretty hard because of the amount of work we’ve had to do just to make ends meet.”
The guardian’s attorney, Taylar Lewis, said the judge’s order is a lesson for district officials in how to handle students who fall under the IDEA law.
“I think this order is a good indication that the family’s concerns were valid, and a neutral third party, here, saw the same issues as the family did in providing students with an appropriate education,” Lewis said. “We’re hopeful that’s a good reminder to district folks moving forward that there's a reason these laws are in place and that they’re really important in protecting kids’ interests.”
The guardian said he was aware the Medford School District could appeal, possibly using a 2008 ruling from U.S. District Court, in which it reversed a due process decision that required Ashland School District to fund a student's residential placement.
“We believe the opinion is legally sound and is equitable in its award,” Lewis said in an email. “We hope the district does not choose to prolong this process, as this has been a very challenging situation, and allows the family to move on.”
The guardian said his half-brother has successfully completed programming at White River and earned enough credits to graduate with a diploma.
“For us, that was a milestone,” the guardian said. “Especially being on a regular diploma and not a modified diploma or anything like that. Without that, and with the struggles he had growing up through the K-12 system, I don’t know what his future would look like.”
Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.
Editor’s note: This article was revised to clarify that the student was suspected but not arrested for sexual abuse of an animal in the home.