Saturday, July 2, 2011

State hearing officer rules Hampton, Va., schools doesn't have to provide sign language interpreter for deaf-blind third grader

From The Daily Press in Va.:

HAMPTON, Va. — A state-appointed hearing officer has ruled that Hampton City Schools does not have to provide a special sign-language interpreter for a deaf-blind elementary student.

The ruling brings to a close a three-month case in which Yining Luo fought the school district to provide the additional service for her son, Anbao Chen. (Both are pictured.)

He is a rising third-grader who is legally deaf-blind and diagnosed with Down syndrome, autism, mental retardation and developmental coordination disorder.

Luo's request was for Hampton to provide a "deaf-blind intervener" for her son during the school day, rather than an American Sign Language interpreter.

The position of "intervener" is not recognized in Virginia, but is defined by the Virginia Deaf-Blindness Project as a person with specialized skills related to deaf-blindness who works consistently with a deaf-blind person.

Anbao's mother argued that he needed an intervener in order to receive a free appropriate public education, as required by federal law. The law places the burden of proof on her to show that without an intervener, her son was not receiving the basic education he is legally due.

The hearing officer, Robin Gnatowsky, ruled this month in a 30-page document obtained by the Daily Press that Hampton City Schools is not legally obligated to fulfill Luo's request.

All the law requires, he wrote in his June 20 hearing decision, is for a disabled student to receive personalized instruction and services "calculated by school administrators to provide educational benefit."

Although he denied Luo's request for an interpreter as being legally necessary, Gnatowsky ordered an independent educational evaluation of Anbao's cognitive abilities, including his IQ.

He also ordered an independent evaluation to determine the extent of Anbao's eyesight and how it affects his ability to learn. The school district's attorneys claimed in case documents that "Anbao is not blind" and did not need services related to blindness.

"Current tests may prove helpful particularly to the school division in both planning needed educational services and in possibly defending future claims that this student is blind," Gnatowsky write.

The eyesight and IQ tests can provide objective information and evidence about Anbao, he wrote, since the student is likely to be enrolled in Hampton City Schools for many years and other disagreements may arise.

"It is therefore in the interest of this student that there be more data available ahead of disputes to help in the decision process," he wrote.

Gnatowsky's decision comes after a contentious process that began with Anbao's family filing a request for a case hearing March 23.

In May, attorneys representing Hampton City Schools were rebuked by Gnatowsky in a written case summary for implying they would use unethical tactics to influence the outcome of the case, such as hampering his payment if he didn't rule in their favor.