Deal reached between Poudre School District and special needs student's family over testing

Father says resolution 'satisfied both sides'

FORT COLLINS, Colo. - The latest chapter in a long legal battle between the Poudre School District and the family of a special needs student ended Friday without a judge's ruling.

The CALL7 Investigators have learned Donna and Ephraim Starr were able to reach an agreement with the district that preempted the need for further hearings. The district had filed a due process complaint against the family in January.

"We were able to reach a resolution that satisfied both sides," said Ephraim Starr.

He said he had agreed not to disclose further details.

Friday evening, PSD officials declined to comment pending official notification from the district's legal counsel.

Legal action

In January, PSD filed a due process complaint against the Starrs over testing for their son, Isaac, who has autism.

The Starrs said they granted permission to perform about half of the tests for which the district sought permission, but requested further information on the remaining tests that PSD initially refused to provide. ‚Äč

"The school district is suing us because we won't give consent to a handful of the 26 evaluations they asked to conduct," Ephraim Starr told CALL7 Investigator John Ferrugia in an interview shortly after the due process complaint was filed.  "I wanted to sit down with them and talk about these evaluations, and how they might be used, and who would be conducting them. And they never gave me that chance."

On Thursday, Starr told the CALL7 Investigators information revealed in the course of the legal proceedings had made progress toward addressing his family's concerns about the testing, though he said the two sides were unable to resolve the matter at that time.

statement released by the district Thursday evening noted the complaint marked the first time in more than a decade the Poudre School District had been involved in a due process hearing, and said the proceedings were not related to a previous lawsuit brought by the Starrs after they learned district employees had destroyed emails and records about Isaac, and discovered disparaging remarks made about their family.

Records destroyed

The judge in that 2011 case ultimately found a December 9, 2010 order to destroy records from PSD Integrated Services Director Sarah Belleau did not violate the Colorado Open Records Act. But the judge did find the district illegally withheld records, and PSD was forced to pay the Starrs $122,577.74 for their attorney fees. The CALL7 Investigators have learned the case also cost taxpayers at least $56,609.62 in payments to an outside data recovery provider, and tens of thousands of dollars to an outside law firm.

According to the PSD statement, "certain employee conduct was dealt with in 2011," but it does not say who was disciplined or how. Gloria Hohrein, one of the employees Belleau ordered to destroy records, was disciplined and eventually fired, but Belleau is still Integrated Services Director. Joe Horky, the principal at Isaac's school at the time, who participated in the destruction of records, also kept his job.

In a letter sent to Poudre School District parents Friday, Superintendent Sandra Smyser refers to the emails revealed in the 2011 case as inappropriate, but again does not offer specifics regarding discipline:

"Dear PSD Community,
We live in an amazing community with outstanding schools. Our teachers and staff are passionate about helping students succeed and ensuring they are prepared for a changing world. Recent media attention, focused on employee emails from 2011 that characterized a family in inappropriate ways, has caused some community members to raise concerns about teacher and staff professionalism.
I want to emphasize that I believe this behavior was inappropriate and against our values.  The district addressed this conduct three years ago. As a rule, we do not discuss personnel matters, which I know frustrates parents and community members. However, I can tell you the matter was dealt with appropriately.
Additionally, I believe this was an isolated situation. Our teachers and staff members are professionals who are committed to helping students succeed. As a Special Education teacher I worked with parents every day to create positive solutions for students and I know this is happening in classrooms around the district. When I visit schools I see parents and community members collaborating with staff in so many ways including volunteering, implementing innovative programs and working with individual students. I am proud of how our teachers, administrators and support staff conduct themselves with parents, guardians and the community.
Education is a team effort between parents, staff, administrators and teachers. We must all work together to support students.  I expect that PSD staff will act with respect and integrity when communicating with parents and the community, not just face to face, but also in writing.
So, as a parent and longtime educator, I ask you to stay engaged with us. When we learn of any situation where a staff member is acting inappropriately, my administration will immediately investigate and take action if necessary.
As such, if you have a concern about interactions with PSD staff regarding your student, I encourage you to contact your school principal or if necessary, Todd Lambert, assistant superintendent of elementary schools or Edie Eckles, assistant superintendent of secondary schools.
I value the close working relationship our district has with parents and believe this partnership is crucial to a successful outcome for students. I recognize there is no greater leap of faith than when a parent sends his or her child to school, entrusting us with their care and education.
On behalf of the entire Poudre School District team, please know we are grateful for your trust and work hard every day to honor and deserve it.
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