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Parties settle legal battle over special ed

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Alec Maier participated in the Special Olympics in Kansas. His parents were able to attend during one of their visits earlier this year.
Alec Maier participated in the Special Olympics in Kansas. His parents were able to attend during one of their visits earlier this year.

GREENFIELD — A Hancock County family that has fought local school officials over the out-of-state placement of their severely autistic son will be able to keep him at the Kansas facility for the next three years.

A settlement approved Wednesday by Hancock Madison Shelby Educational Services says the special-education cooperative will pay an estimated $205,000 to Pam and Rich Maier, whose son, Alec, 19, was unable to attend regular classes because of his autism. The settlement also calls for the agency to pay for the Maiers’ travel expenses between their home in McCordsville and Wichita, Kan., where the center is located.

The settlement essentially upholds the findings of an independent hearing officer who ruled two years ago that Alec should be sent to the Heartspring special-education center in Wichita. That ruling followed a year of dispute over the best school setting for Alec. Local special-ed officials wanted to place him at Pendleton Heights High School, where students with special needs from the Mt. Vernon district, such as Alec, attend classes. The Maiers argued that strategy was not best for their son because of his needs. The dispute resulted in the agency suing the Maiers and the family filing a countersuit.

Pam Maier said the family is pleased with the outcome.

“It took us a long time, but we feel so blessed with the final decision,” she said.

The heart of the settlement is the agreement to keep Alec at Heartspring, touted as one of the best special-ed centers in the country. Alec will be able to stay at Heartspring until he “ages out” of the facility at 22.

“It just gives me chills to know Alec will be able to stay there another three years,” Pam Maier said.

The special-ed cooperative, whose board consists of the four Hancock County school superintendents and two others, will have to pay the first $10,000 of the settlement, while insurance will pay the remainder, officials said Wednesday. The board unanimously approved the settlement.

The cooperative will, however, have to pay for the Maiers’ incidental and travel expenses to visit their son. Officials place that cost at $12,000 to $20,000 a year, depending on the length and frequency of their nearly 1,400-mile round trips and the mode of transportation.

“It’s always frustrating, any kind of settlement like this,” said board president Randy Harris, superintendent at Eastern Hancock High School.

Harris said the board believed it still had some legitimate claims, but it decided not to risk further legal expense and settle the matter before a judge in mediation.  

“There are a whole lot of factors that you look at, including the interest of the child,” Harris said.

The cooperative’s executive director, Karen Niemeier, said the agency will pay for Alec’s placement at Heartspring – which costs an estimated $350,000 per year – with a special-education grant through the Indiana Department of Education. 

“As of right now, the DOE application is still good, but we’re going to have to go through that process again in the March-April time frame,” Niemeier said.

It’s a process they’ll have to go through each spring until Alec is finished with his education, she said.

“We have to always make sure conferences are held at a certain time and be sure that the paperwork is submitted, but once it is submitted, it is a DOE decision,” she said.

Harris said the board will use the dispute as a learning opportunity to make sure officials are not placed in the same situation again. But he maintains the cooperative did nothing wrong in handling Alec’s case.

“We have not admitted to any wrongdoing; we simply wanted to put this issue to bed,” Harris said of the dispute, which lasted three years. “We’ve just said, ‘enough is enough’ and agreed to a settlement.”

The Maiers agreed.

“We could have gone forward and gone to the Supreme Court, but the stress wasn’t worth it,” Pam Maier said. 

The family will use the bulk of its award to pay legal fees – estimated at about $190,000 – and the rest will go to catch up on other bills. 

“We’ve had a second mortgage on our home for three years now,” Pam Maier said.

Still, the three-year battle was worth the fight, she said, to make sure their only son had the best learning environment.   

“He’s now in a high-functioning group home with boys who can talk and is becoming a real teenager, even working three days a week,” she said.

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