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The Office of Public Instruction in Helena

The Office of Public Instruction in Helena is pictured in this Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, photo.

Settlements totaling more than $1 million have been reached in the case of a 16-year-old Montana student with disabilities who was allegedly removed from his school, placed in a church basement and told to watch DVDs and sort nuts and bolts. 

The student and his family will receive around $1,141,000 in compensation from the Montana Office of Public Instruction and the rural school district where he was enrolled. 

The student is referred to only as R.C. in legal documents to protect his identity. Because the student goes to school in a rural part of Montana, the school district is also unnamed in court documents to avoid revealing his identity. 

The majority of the settlement money will go to the teen’s future education under neuropsychology expert Dr. Helena Huckabee of Denver. Only $35,000 of the total amount was paid to the family in damages, including $25,000 from the school district and $10,000 from OPI.

The school district agreed to pay up to $175,000 in educational service fees for the first year and up to $150,000 per year for the following five years. This six years of total service compensates the teen, R.C., for the two remaining years he was eligible for education and the four years he was allegedly denied education by the district. Because the district allegedly failed to provide an education for the student, this program will act as a substitute.

The increase of $25,000 during the first year is to cover any initial costs incurred during the beginning of his treatment.

Additionally, the student's family will be reimbursed for any out-of-pocket expenses incurred for travel costs including lodging, meals, transportation and participation in community-based activities that are part of R.C.’s treatment.

Attorney's fees and costs will also be covered by the settlement. The district will pay $110,000 to cover all fees and costs incurred by the attorney during this case. OPI will pay an additional $71,000 in attorney’s fees and costs. These payments include everything filed during the course of the case.

Additionally, if any payment remains unpaid in full more than three business days after the due date, an annual rate of 18 percent will be applied as a late fee.

Despite paying $81,000 in its portion of the settlement, OPI is not admitting any liability in the case, spokesperson Dylan Klapmeier said. Montana’s state self-insurance reserve fund will pay $30,000, and $51,000 will come out of OPI’s general operating budget.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen made the decision to settle “based on the best interests of the student and also to bring this long-standing litigation to a close," Klapmeier said.

Tal Goldin, attorney for Disability Rights Montana, which filed a complaint on behalf of the teen and his family, said he couldn't provide a comment to the press due to a nondisclosure agreement. 

The original lawsuit stated that in 2014, R.C. was segregated from other students and moved the basement of a nearby Lutheran church. 

In an October 2017 interview, Goldin said, “I don’t know if the state has ever been faced with a case where a district wholly excluded a student. It’s particularly egregious that the state of Montana knows about that and fails to act.”

At the time, the suit claimed that several public officials were aware of the issues but failed to act in order to provide R.C. with adequate educational services. Disability Rights Montana had previously filed an administrative complaint with OPI under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that provides grant money to states and requires schools to provide special education services to qualified students.

In September 2016, R.C.’s mother filed a formal complaint with OPI, which led to an investigation. OPI found the student was not receiving services and directed the district to take specific action to provide services within 60 days. This was under the administration of Denise Juneau, Superintendent of Public Instruction at the time the incident started.

The district never complied and OPI never enforced its own order, according to court documents.

Requests and demands were reiterated the following year during the administration of Arntzen, who was named in the lawsuit instead of Juneau. Court documents claimed that Arntzen discussed the demands with special education administrators Frank Podobnik and Richard Trerise, both named as defendants in the suit, who allegedly failed to act.

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One year after the demands were reiterated, this settlement was reached between the involved parties. The compensation mostly comes in the form of education and treatment for R.C.

According to an evaluation by a neuropsychologist, R.C. suffers from significant cognitive delay and a traumatic brain injury. R.C. also suffers from a seizure disorder that is believed to contribute to his sometimes inappropriate behavior.

The district will provide an education program for R.C. by paying the cost of the services and treatment designed by and implemented under the supervision of Huckabee.

Huckabee will have sole authority and discretion to determine the substance and manner of implementation of all aspects of the program.

R.C.’s educational program will include multidisciplinary instruction that includes applied behavior analysis therapy, trauma-focused services, transition services, academic instruction, assistive technology, supplementary aid and related services such as speech, occupational and physical therapy.

According to court documents, the program will focus on remediation of R.C.’s problematic behaviors and skills necessary for his participation in educational, community and vocational settings in order to live as independently as possible.

R.C. will travel to Huckabee’s clinic in Denver for treatment periods approximately two weeks at a time, three to six hours per day.

While in Montana, R.C. will receive education services seven hours per day. This home program will be implemented by family members, paraprofessionals, registered behavior technicians and other providers as determined appropriate by Huckabee.

The implementation for R.C.’s educational services began in the 2018-19 school year and will run through the 2023-24 school year.

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