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October 6, 2002

State official rules in favor deaf child in school dispute

From: Star Newspapers, IL
Oct. 6, 2002

By Mary Sedor
The Star

A 4-year-old Flossmoor boy should be allowed to attend a school that specializes in hearing-impaired children, an Illinois State Board of Education officer determined last week.

And, Flossmoor School District 161 should pick up the tab.

Billy Fabian, 4, who was born deaf, had a cochlear implant at age 2. The implant helps him learn to hear by translating sound into electrical impulses in his brain.

Billy now has a 250 word vocabulary, his parents say, in part due to the education he is receiving at Child's Voice in Elmhurst.

Colleen and Joe Fabian want Billy to attend Child's Voice because the school uses an oral method of learning, which teaches children to hear and speak.

However, District 161 officials want Billy to attend Hickory Hill Learning Center in Park Forest, where teachers utilize a total communication method.

There, Billy would learn sign language, which his parents say is "detrimental" to his learning to speak.

Last school year, Billy's parents sent him to Child's Voice and asked District 161 to pay the tuition. Neither the district nor the Fabians had agreed to pay the tuition.

Since District 161 officials and the Fabians could not reach an agreement as to which education method was best for Billy, the decision wound up in the hands of an Illinois State Board of Education appointed hearing officer.

The hearing officer decides whether the district has complied with procedural safeguards in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and whether the individualized education program proposed by the school district is in the student's best interest.

Hearing officer Richard Brimer, decided Sept. 29 that the appropriate school for Billy is Child's Voice.

According to Brimer's order, the district is required to pay this year's tuition and transportation costs for Billy's education.

The district also is required to reimburse Joe and Colleen Fabian for Billy's tuition and transportation costs paid during the 2001-2002 school year. Tuition is about $23,000 per year.

The district also must pay attorney costs exceeding $100,000.

District officials can appeal the decision. They have 120 days to file a civil action on any of the issues brought out in the hearing.

District 161 Supt. Donna Joy, who just came to the district this summer, said the school board has not yet had an opportunity to discuss the decision.

Brooke Whitted, legal counsel for the Fabians, said if the district appeals, it has to do so by filing a lawsuit against Billy.

"The decision is strong in our favor," Whitted said.

On Friday, Colleen Fabian said she is relieved. "It (the struggle with District 161 officials) was the worst thing that could ever happen," she said.

She said the sad part is there are other parents faced with similar situations.

"My first thought was I never want another parent to go through this," she said.

"This never should have happened. The worst thing is who is going to help the next parent who is too timid to step forward," she said.

She said last year she tried calling the district for eight months before she was able to set up a meeting to discuss Billy's individualized education plan.

The Fabians visited both Child's Voice and Hickory Hill. She said the district's choice was "totally inappropriate" for him.

"The school district's goal was not in Billy's best interest," she said. "The people making the decisions never even worked with Billy."

After attending Child's Voice for the past school year, Billy's vocabulary has surpassed her expectations, she said.

She said the goal is for Billy to be in the mainstream.

"His best phrase is 'no pop' because we don't allow him to have soda," she said.

"Every day is an amazing day," she said. "Billy loves going to school."

According to the hearing officer, "The record clearly proves the IEP (individualized education program) proposed for the student by the school district for the 2001-2002 school year is not appropriate, as it is not reasonably calculated to meet the student's unique educational needs."

The school district "acknowledges the student has significantly progressed while enrolled in the day school program. But the school district assert that he would have advanced in their program," according to the order.

Joy said the school district is interested in making sure Billy is in school.

"We are obligated to ensure the education of all children, whether they have special needs or not," she said. "It is the district's responsibility to provide the appropriate public education for all kids."

Joy would not say if the decision will affect the district financially.

She did say the due process hearing "gives the district a chance to clarify the matters and issues of concern regarding a child's education."

The district is working to improve communication with parents, however, she said every school district today will be faced with due process hearings.

"We really want to work with parents to create a partnership," she said. "The parents, community and schools, that's what creates the quality education District 161 is known for."

She said due process tries to clarify the child's needs. Even if communication is improved, the district may still end up in due process.

"We need to work together because we all want the same thing," she said. "The school district, the school board, we want the appropriate quality education for our kids, as do the parents."

In April, district representatives, the Fabians and their attorneys will meet to discuss Billy's attendance in an extended school year program in the summer. They also are required to develop an education plan for the next school year.

© 2002 Star Newspapers