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Jack O’Brien Wins Special Education Case before the Iowa Department of Education on behalf of Student with Disabilities

BrownWinick celebrates attorney Jack O’Brien’s success in advocating for the rights of students with disabilities before the Iowa Department of Education.   

For the past two years, Jack O’Brien has worked with his client the Disabilities Resource Center of Siouxland (the “DRC”) to advocate for students in the Siouxland area with disabilities. One such student is K.S., a high schooler in the Sioux City Community School District (the “District”) diagnosed with hydranencephaly (a rare condition in which parts of the brain are occupied by sacs of cerebrospinal fluid), gelastic seizures, cortical visual impairment, and hip dysplasia. K.S. is non-verbal, uses a wheelchair, and is dependent on care providers for basic needs. He is considered medically fragile and requires continuous nursing and educational assistance. Due to these disabilities, K.S. requires the assistance of a one-on-one nurse at school to access his education as outlined in his individualized education plan (“IEP”). 

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), a federal law, requires schools “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.” 20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A). This includes “school health services and school nurse services[.]” 34 C.F.R. § 300.34(a). A student’s IEP provides the special education and related services needed to meet that particular student’s needs. Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas Cnty. Sch. Dist., 137 S. Ct. 988, 994 (2017). Such services can include one-on-one nursing services. See, e.g., Cedar Rapids Cmty. Sch. Dist. v. Garret F. ex rel. Charlene F., 526 U.S. 66, 68-69, 79 (1999). 

Despite the fact that K.S. is entitled to have a nurse with him at school under the IDEA, the District stopped providing a nurse to him in September 2021 when his former nurse moved out of town. K.S. was unable to attend school at all without a nurse. Instead, he sat at home for almost a year as his parents repeatedly requested that the District provide a new nurse or at least arrange for temporary online classes. Eventually, in August 2022, the District agreed to allow K.S. to attend school online. However, his online learning consisted of two Zoom sessions of about 15 to 30 minutes each per day. These sessions were not designed to accommodate K.S.’s disabilities or meet the education goals in his IEP. Moreover, his parents had to rearrange their lives so that they could be home during the day to help facilitate these sessions. Although the parents consistently requested updates on a nurse for K.S., the District provided no timeline, stating only that nurse staffing shortages were to blame. 

K.S.’s parents eventually reached out to the DRC and attorney Jack O’Brien. Although some progress was made in the initial meetings, it soon became clear that the District had no immediate plan to provide a one-on-one nurse to K.S. as required under federal law. In fact, the problem seemed to be more sprawling than initially thought. The District indicated that multiple students in Siouxland who required a one-on-one nurse were currently not receiving an in-person education due to nurse staffing shortages. In light of this, Jack advised that the best path forward for K.S. was to file a Special Education Complaint with the Iowa Department of Education (the “Department”). This is an administrative process which involves filing a written complaint that alleges a school district violated the IDEA. After a complaint is filed, the school has 30 days to file a response, and then the Department has another 30 days to investigate.  Unless an extension is granted, the Department issues a decision within a total of 60 days on the alleged violation.   

After reviewing K.S.’s situation, the Department found that K.S. had been denied a free appropriate public education for more than a year: “A staffing shortage does not suspend a District’s duty to provide [an education] to students with disabilities. When the District was unable to implement the nursing services as outlined in the IEP, it improperly placed the student in a more restrictive environment [i.e., online classes] and failed to provide the IEP services for more than a year. While the Department understands a staffing shortage is a challenge many are facing that cannot easily be solved, the delay in meaningfully addressing the problem for more than a year did not show due diligence.” The Department ordered the District to immediately adopt plans to return K.S. to school for the upcoming semester and offer immediate summer instruction to allow K.S. to catch up to his peers. Further, the Department required all nurses and special education leaders in the District to complete further training on implementing health plans for disabled students. It also required the District to provide a list of all students who require one-on-one nursing services in Siouxland, presumably to review whether they have been denied services as well. Last, the Department also offered the parents the opportunity to submit evidence of damages for potential reimbursement. 

This case is a huge win for K.S. and the rights of students with disabilities in Siouxland that would not have been possible without K.S.’s parents, the Disabilities Resource Center of Siouxland, and Jack O’Brien. BrownWinick commends Jack O’Brien for his work in securing this result for his client. Jack has a growing practice in the areas of litigation and education law and, with successes like this, it is clear he has a bright future in fighting for the rights of persons with disabilities.