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Parents of boy with autism suing AACS district

Star Beacon - 10/5/2017

Oct. 05--ASHTABULA -- The parents of a boy with autism are suing the Ashtabula Area City School District and school officials, saying their son's rights were violated when the district removed their son's caregiver and transportation provider, causing the child "irreparable harm."

James Hockaday and his wife, Laura Jones, of Ashtabula, have hired Cleveland attorney Avery Friedman who filed the 23-page lawsuit Tuesday in Cleveland Federal Court. The suit states that van driver Dana Scott has been transporting the couple's 8-year-old son to a school outside the district for the past four months in order to accommodate his disability because the district did not have the staff or facilities to address his needs.

The complaint alleges the school district now wants to replace Scott, who the boy has known since the beginning of summer, in retaliation for the parents' complaints about the district's non-compliance with the Rehabilitation Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, among other laws, according to the complaint.

The complaint seeks to "freeze" the changing of the driver because "familiarity and regularity are part of therapy for autism," and a plan to switch to an unfamiliar driver will "inflict irreparable harm" on the child. The change was scheduled to start this past Monday.

The complaint seeks emergency relief to maintain Scott as the child's van driver as well as other relief and damages, including payment of all legal fees, according to the suit.

The suit also names Superintendent Melissa Watson and Lori Witt, director of pupil services, and all Board of Education members.

Board President Steve Candela said he can't comment, and Watson is out of the office until Monday.

Last February, Hockaday and Jones created an Individualized Education Program, which included investigating "other settings" to accommodate their child's disabilities, according to the complaint.

The plaintiffs state in the lawsuit they continually emphasized that familiarity and regularity are critical for their son's needs.

In March, without asking the parents, Witt told them the district would send the boy to a specialized school for the summer and place him to a special school in the 2017-18 school year, according to the suit.

"Ms. Scott, a caring, attentive driver, easily facilitated the requirements of familiarity and regularity necessary to avoid extreme chaos which is a symptomatic response of a child with autism and who had a close physical appearance to the child's mother," according to the suit.

On Aug. 18, much to the parents' dismay, the district said they planned to switch drivers. Then on Aug. 21, Watson told them Scott would remain the driver, according to the complaint.

Watson then urged Hockaday and Jones to start an anti-union media campaign to suggest the union was advocating the best interests of union drivers rather than the best interests of children, according to the complaint.

Watson also encouraged Jones, because of her prominence in the community as executive director of Leadership Ashtabula County, to appear before the school board to condemn the union, according to the complaint. Jones refused to do this.

On Aug. 24, the parents, together with the child's doctor and local law enforcement, opposed any substitute driver being held over their heads, according to the complaint.

The following week, school officials sent Jones and Hockaday what they called a "placement agreement."

"The placement agreement was not a placement agreement at all and was intended by defendants to be kept secret," according to the suit. "The secret government generated agreement unlawfully switched the district selected placement to a 'parentally selected placement' in order to assign future tuition and transportation expenses to the plaintiffs instead of being borne by the school district."

If the boy's parents refused to sign, the district would cut off special transportation with the familiar van driver for another, according to the complaint.

On Sept. 26, school officials rescinded Scott as the child's regular driver because the parents didn't sign the "secret agreement," according to the complaint.

"The secret agreement provides for a gag, prohibiting anything between the public school system and this family," Avery said.

As a result of the school district's actions, according to the suit, the parents and their child have suffered serious and consequential damages, including personal injury, pain, suffering and emotional harm and distress.

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(c)2017 the Star Beacon (Ashtabula, Ohio)

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