MCCORDSVILLE — Once a month, Pam and Rich Maier pack their bags, get on a plane and fly nearly 700 miles to Kansas to visit their 18-year-old son, Alec.
Alec has severe autism, and rather than attend school locally, the Indiana Department of Education sent him to the Heartspring special-education center in Wichita. He lives year-round at Heartspring, one of the top schools of its kind in the nation.
His out-of-state placement is not only rare, state and local officials say, but the cost – footed by taxpayers – is hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
Alec’s placement has also resulted in a federal lawsuit pitting the Maiers against officials at Hancock Madison Shelby Educational Services, the Greenfield-based special-education cooperative that oversees programs for an estimated 3,200 students with special needs in six school districts.
The agency sued the Maiers on the premise Alec should be attending school locally, not at a residential facility in Kansas.
Placement at Pendleton Heights High School, where many students with special needs from Mt. Vernon Schools attend, was deemed to be the “least restrictive environment” for Alec by his individual Case Conference Committee. All special-needs students have such a committee, comprised of educators, administrators and parents, that determines their Individual Education Plan. IEPs are important because they articulate strategies for the care and education of students like Alec.
In May 2010, Alec’s plan called for him to be taken out of Damar Services, a residential special-needs facility in Indianapolis where he had lived since 2006, and placed at Pendleton Heights High School, where he would receive one hour of special instruction each day.
The family, which has logged close to 17,000 miles traveling between McCordsville and Wichita, say the local experts badly underestimated the level of care Alec requires and lost special funding that could have kept Alec in a facility closer to home.
As a result, the family and the cooperative have been involved in a two-year legal battle over Alec’s placement at Heartspring.
At the heart of the dispute is the large gray area that sometimes defines special education in an age when special-needs students are mainstreamed into regular classrooms rather than receiving more personalized and structured one-to-one instruction.
“It’s very difficult to make that a bright line,” said Andrew Manna, an attorney representing the cooperative in its lawsuit against the Maiers.
The cooperative is in the unusual role of plaintiff because of the disagreement over Alec’s IEP.
In December 2006, Alec’s plan called for him to be placed in Damar, where he lived year-round. In the spring of 2010, the cooperative and family together agreed to mainstream Alec and created a new IEP calling for him to live at home and go to school in Pendleton.
Alec was officially pulled out of Damar in June 2010; the family says that’s when the trouble began.
Without individualized 24/7 care, they say, Alec rapidly regressed, even becoming violent with family members, while waiting to enroll at Pendleton Heights in the fall of 2010.
“He was supposed to have his aide from Damar come into the home during the transition, and it just fell through the cracks,” said Alec’s mother, Pam.
After several attempts at placing Alec in classes at Pendleton in August and September 2010, the family withdrew him from the school in October, saying it just wouldn’t work.
Dissatisfied with responses to their requests to the special-education cooperative to write a new IEP, the family filed a complaint with the DOE in December 2010, asking the cooperative to create another plan for Alec.
After months of discussion without resolution, the family hired a lawyer and asked DOE for an independent hearing on Alec’s case. In April 2011, the hearing officer ruled Alec, who had been out of school for almost a year by this point, was owed compensatory services and recommended the out-of-state placement.
That prompted the cooperative, whose board consists of the four Hancock County school superintendents and two others, to file suit against the family in May 2011.
The aim was to keep Alec in Indiana for schooling. The argument was that Alec’s IEP hadn’t been given enough time to work.
It was an unusual action.
“It’s nothing that we’ve ever dealt with as a board that I can remember,” said Eastern Hancock Superintendent Randy Harris, president of the co-op’s board.
Karen Niemeier, executive director of the cooperative, said she could not comment specifically on Alec’s case, but she said the agency works hard to find the best situation for each student in its care.
“Whenever we’re presented with a circumstance or situation, we do look and see what the child needs, and we want to make sure that they get it,” Niemeier said.
As a result of the hearing officer’s findings, Alec was placed in Heartspring in June 2011. He has lived there ever since.
Programming at Heartspring is designed to lead children toward a more independent life by teaching them skills for daily living, thereby reducing the need for care.
“He is thriving there,” Pam said. Alec was recently promoted to a higher level of education, where he’s getting the chance to interact with higher-functioning individuals, his mother said.
“For him to be able to make his bed, brush his teeth, go shopping and even have a job is something we always believed in.”
Alec was diagnosed with severe autism as a child and has lived in three facilities over the past several years, the family said.
According to state law, the cooperative will be responsible for paying for Alec’s education until he is 22. At that point, he’ll either mainstream into society, be placed in a group home under state care or live with his family.
In the meantime, the family is in mediation with the cooperative trying to settle a counterclaim against the agency after a federal magistrate ruled in July 2012 to uphold the independent hearing officer’s findings.
The cooperative filed an appeal with the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, but a lawyer for the cooperative said the appeal was rejected because the counterclaim is still active.
Alec’s placement in Wichita is costing taxpayers an estimated $350,000 per year, about $150,000 more than his education at Damar, the family attorney said.
The price tag dwarfs the estimated $8,900 cooperative officials say it typically costs to educate a child with severe autism, like Alec.
While representatives of the cooperative argue the family and members of Alec’s Case Conference Committee unilaterally pulled Alec out of Damar, setting the stage for his placement at Pendleton Heights, the Maiers’ lawyer, Alexandra Curlin, disagrees.
She said Mt. Vernon Community School Corp. officials lost special-education funding for Alec by not updating his IEP or properly assessing him during his time at Damar.
“The school dropped the ball and they lost their funding, and they didn’t fight for the funding,” Curlin said.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states set aside money into an excessive-costs fund for special-needs children with extreme needs like Alec, DOE officials said.
“That fund is there to serve students who have extraordinary needs that go above and beyond what you would typically see a school district spend on a student,” DOE Special Education Director Nichole Norvell said.
Without the special funding to keep Alec at Damar, the family said, it had no choice but to try and make things work at Pendleton, where he was to be given limited assistance.
“They had no understanding of his level of need,” Curlin said.
Added Pam Maier: “It was like a cookie-cutter approach.”
Officials with the cooperative maintain the family acted hastily in pulling Alec from the high school in Pendleton and before he had the chance to truly get used to his new environment.
“My concern is we haven’t exhausted all of the things we should have before it got to all of this,” Mt. Vernon Superintendent Bill Riggs said. “As long as I have these lingering suspicions that there are other alternatives that would be better for everybody, it just makes it frustrating.”
While Alec’s placement in Wichita is currently being paid for by the special excessive-costs fund through DOE, if the state were to lose the money in the future, Riggs said, the cooperative would be left to pick up the tab.
Still, Harris, the EH superintendent, said the reason for the lawsuit had nothing to do with finances.
“I think it ultimately gets back to what is the least restrictive environment for that child,” Harris said in describing the school’s argument and the goal of preparing the child to ultimately live independently. “We don’t believe that (Heartspring) is the appropriate placement.”
After seeing the progress their son has made over the past several months, the Maiers are in favor of battling to keep Alec in Kansas. Still, they acknowledge no one is completely satisfied with the arrangement. The Maiers admit having their son hundreds of miles away is not ideal.
Alec wasn’t able to be home for Thanksgiving and won’t be home until Christmas, the family said.
His parents are, however, able to talk with him on the phone and via Skype several times a week. Plus, something good has come out of the family being apart from its only son.
“Now, he can say hello and goodbye properly,” Pam said. “He couldn’t do that before.”