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After fighting for eight years to get school administrators to address the vicious bullying that his autistic daughter endured at a New York City public school — and then reimburse the family for the cost of the private school that they transferred her to as a result — Tracy Klestadt won when a judge ruled that the city must pay the $28,000 tuition.
“I was not going to let them get away with it,” Klestadt tells Yahoo Parenting about the Jan. 20 ruling regarding his daughter, referred to as L.K. for privacy, issued by the US Court of Appeals, which upheld a prior ruling that the city’s Department of Education had violated the U.S. Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. “It’s very gratifying to know that we were right and that we were able to effect change not only on behalf of my family but others as well.”
L.K. was just 10 years old when the torment began in her third-grade class at New York’s PS-6, into which learning disabled students were mixed, in the 2007 – 2008 school year. The child was reportedly often pushed and tripped, pinched, and laughed at when she raised her hand. At one point a teacher’s aide shared with the Klestadts a drawing classmates had made of L.K., marking her image with “ugly” and “fat” and “stupid” insults penciled in.
(Photo: Courtesy of Tracy Klestadt)
“There were two, three years’ worth of incidents that we kept bringing to the attention of the school that were ignored,” the father says about bullying toward his daughter, whom the New York Post reports “dreaded going to class” and “cried when she came home.”
The principal, Lauren Fontana, made it clear, the Klestadts’ attorney, Gary Mayerson, tells Yahoo Parenting, “that this wasn’t an issue she was going to discuss.” Klestadt says: “It was very frustrating. We were very invested in the public school system, but the administrators were absolute abominations in their attitudes and refusal to address the situation. Unfortunately for them, they picked the wrong S.O.B. to deal with.”
An attorney himself, the dad explains, “I’m very tough. I’m very fair and practical, but if you’re not going to respect and listen to what I’m going to say, I’m going to seek redress.” And that’s exactly what he did. The family pulled L.K. from PS-6, enrolled her in the Summit School in Queens — a $28,000-a-year private school for children with learning disabilities — and began the long process of fighting back in the courts.
“There was shell shock and she had flashbacks, et cetera, but her new school situation was far more nurturing and had zero tolerance for bullying,” Klestadt says, noting that such behavior “just didn’t exist there. It was in every respect the appropriate setting for her.” The family subsequently decamped to Long Island, “in part because of what happened” at PS-6, Klestadt reveals, adding that the Long Island school district they moved into “agreed the Summit School was the appropriate setting” for L.K. and has been reimbursing the tuition that the family is paying for her to continue at the private school.
“Students have the right to expect they can attend school free from physical or psychological abuse,” Mayerson told the New York Post after the ruling. “And parents can expect that if they raise or communicate concerns about bullying, that those concerns will be acted upon in a timely manner and addressed.” And while the city’s Department of Education (DOE) reimburses about $235 million a year in private-school tuition to parents who prove public schools did not adequately serve their kids with disabilities, according to the newspaper, the Post reported that the DOE had never before reimbursed because of bullying.
“The major point of this case is that it became something larger than the $28,000 tuition,” Klestadt tells Yahoo Parenting. “The legal fees have been more than 10 times that. The point is that we had the resources to fight back, knowing that this treatment by the administration was completely inappropriate and disrespectful to my family, my daughter. But not every family with a disabled child has the resources to fight back.”
The “knowledge that we were doing something right and for the greater good was what kept us going,” the father adds. “And I’m a lawyer, so my view was, ‘If I’m right, then I have the obligation to see it through.’” Klestadt declined comment on what his daughter, now 17 and a senior at the Summit School, thinks about the victory, but insists, “It’s obviously very satisfying to know that ultimately the system of judicial process works. Unfortunately it took an amazing amount of time and effort, but at the end of the day, the court got it right.”
And the precedent that the ruling sets is an important one for all families, Mayerson insists to Yahoo Parenting. “I don’t know that it’ll open the floodgates for other suits but it will certainly increase sensitivity regarding bullying,” he says. “The word on the street is that now school districts are saying, ‘We’ve got to step up and address a bullying issue or we’ll face the same fate as in this case.’”
(Top photo: Wikicommons)