By Laurie Hindman
Berthoud residents Jeff and Julie Perkins, parents of severely autistic son Luke Perkins, are taking their case against the Thompson School District all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In August 2007, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th District ruled the Thompson school district did not have to pay for Luke to attend the Boston Higashi School for Autism in Massachusetts. The tuition is $130,000 annually. As a result, the Perkins’ attorney, Jack D. Robinson, filed a “writ of certiorari” requesting the Supreme Court review their case.
Luke had been attending the Boston school since 2004 after the Perkins removed him from Berthoud Elementary believing Luke’s educational needs were not being fully met. Citing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, the Perkins pressed the Colorado Department of Education to require Thompson School District to pay the private school tuition. The Department of Education supported the Perkins, as did a U.S. District judge, before being overturned by the 10th District Court.
When the Perkins case first drew public attention, it immediately generated strong feelings from the public on both sides of the issue. The debate centers on the definition of “a free, appropriate public education” a ruling that came out of a 1982 Supreme Court case, Board of Education v. Rowley. It is the gray area of the word “appropriate” the Perkins are asking the Supreme Court to define. Key to this debate is the Perkins’ contention that Luke was unable to transfer the skills he demonstrated at school to other environments, in particular at home.
It’s not surprising that they ended up in court, said Ernie Batson, an early childhood education specialist. Batson, with his wife Mary, operates The Learning House in Fort Collins, a non-profit early childhood foundation for children of all abilities from birth to eighth grade. Batson is also a child advocate who attends IEP (Individual Education Plans) meeting with parents to help negotiate with teachers and the school district for a child’s special education needs.
“It’s tough,” said Batson. “Special education departments across the United States are typically bare bones and aren’t able to provide students with what they need. Most schools slide by with the bare minimum and think that’s okay.”
Batson said he was not familiar enough with the details of the Perkins’ case to know if this was true in the Thompson School District, but felt the fact the Perkins were taking their case to the Supreme Court “begs the question, why aren’t they doing this better? Maybe they should look at changing what they are doing and making education better for all students.”
Wes Fothergill, Director of Communications and Community Resources for the Thompson School District rejects the idea that the district was not meeting Luke’s education needs.
“The 10th District Court said that every single individual fact finder determined that Luke made progress in the school environment toward the educational goals that were formed by the school and his parents,” said Fothergill. “Our school district works extremely hard to meet the education goals of each child,” he added.
The nation’s highest court will decide on Feb. 20 as to whether or not they will hear the Perkins’ arguments regarding the special education needs of their son.