BOISE — A federal jury has sided with two Idaho school districts in a lawsuit brought by the family of a teen with Asperger's syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.
The jury deliberated about 6½ hours Friday before reaching the verdict in favor of the Boise and Meridian school districts, and U.S. District Judge Candy Dale issued an order officially dismissing the lawsuit on Wednesday.
Diana Abramowski filed the lawsuit on behalf of her son, Matthew Abramowski, in 2011, contending that the two school districts failed to give him the education promised under federal law, instead, teaching him counterproductive strategies to cope that he could rely on to avoid dealing with his disability and leaving him unprepared for the world. The Abramowskis also said school officials failed to step in when other students reported that Matthew was being repeatedly physically and emotionally bullied by his peers because of his disabilities.
But the districts' attorneys countered that Matthew was given more time and more assessments than any other student in the districts and that his education was both equal and appropriate. School officials contended that Matthew, now 19, had successfully met all the requirements for graduation more than a year ago, though he remained a student under a judges' order while the case moved through the courts.
Nick Crawford, one of the attorneys representing the school districts, said that though the case was tough on all involved, district officials were happy with the verdict and they wish Matthew the best.
"It's a hard job, it's a real tough job for these people," Crawford said of the teachers, special education coordinators and administrators at the districts. "They really do care, and they try to do the best they can. I guess the feeling is we felt like the jury recognized that, and that they did, in fact, care."
Charlene Quade, the attorney representing the Abramowski family, said they were disheartened by the verdict but felt the jury did its job and they felt no animosity for the jurors.
The federal law at issue in the case — called Section 504 — is complicated and can be confusing, she said.
"It's a discrimination statute, a civil rights statute and it involves intentional discrimination or discrimination otherwise shown by deliberate indifference," Quade said. "That means they know he has a federally protected right, and they failed to take the action necessary to ensure he has a free and appropriate public education."
The Abramowski family hopes the case will help other families understand ways they can help schools better help students with invisible disabilities like Asperger's, Quade said.
"We are never saying a student didn't have teachers that tried really hard," she said. "But if you have teachers trying to do their work without the training necessary with regards to the individual's disabilities and what his needs are, it can be very, very difficult."
Today Matthew still needs significant support to function, Quade said. He is receiving services for adults with disabilities, paid for through Medicaid.
"Even though the district thought he met the requirements for graduation, we are concerned that's not what society meant when they created these laws," Quade said.
During opening arguments, Quade and her co-counsel told jurors that school officials didn't do enough to protect Matthew from physical and emotional bullying committed by classmates, and that the education plan the school created for the teen didn't adequately address the trouble Matthew had relating to his peers, communicating, reading, organizing or meeting deadlines. Matthew's disability made it nearly impossible for him to express his feelings and struggles at school with his family, and his family said in the lawsuit that when the pressure became too much, the teen acted out by setting his parents' house on fire. As a result, he was sent to juvenile detention.
Attorneys for the schools told jurors that school officials did what they could for the teen and that they met their legal obligations by providing a free and appropriate public education. Crawford told jurors that school officials were not responsible for the teen's actions in setting the fire and that the way school officials viewed Matthew was widely divergent from the way his parents perceived him.