New attorney to focus on special needs cases in Henrico schools

Source: NBC12
Source: NBC12
Updated: Apr. 25, 2018 at 5:11 PM EDT
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HENRICO, VA (WWBT) - The Henrico County budget passed Tuesday evening, and it includes money allocated for a new county attorney, who would deal specifically with cases involving special needs students in Henrico County Schools.

Henrico County allocated $90,459 in its budget for a third attorney assigned to schools; the attorney who hasn't been hired yet would earn a $67,019 salary, according to Henrico County.

Part of the reason for the additional attorney is the increase of due process cases/hearings over the last year. As of Jan. 31, 2018, Henrico County has been involved in 23 hearings for 15 students. Most of those hearings occurred over the last year.

From 2011 to 2014, Henrico County was involved in a situation that led to a due process hearing with Chele Brandon.

Brandon is the mother of three children - Heather, Greg and Reese - who all have special needs and who all attended Henrico County Public Schools.

"All three of them have autism spectrum disorder," Brandon said. "Greg would be moderate-to-severe, and Heather and Reese have Aspergers."

Brandon's 19-year-old daughter graduated from Henrico County Schools. Her 15 and 12-year-old sons are currently enrolled.

"With Greg, we had some real issues with the county, and I had spent thousands of dollars on an attorney," Brandon said.

It began when Greg was in fourth grade. Brandon didn't believe her son was getting the proper education in the public school system and wanted the county to pay to send him to Faison - a school for people with autism. She says the school didn't believe it was necessary.

Brandon and the school district ended up hiring attorneys to settle the matter in a hearing. The district considers this a "due process" case.

"Henrico is now paying for Greg to go to the Faison school," Brandon said.

Henrico has faced a lot more of these types of hearings over the last year, and it's paying a lot more for attorneys to handle them.

According to the school district:

The amount of money spent with the law firm of ReedSmith to assist with what are known as "due process" proceedings regarding special education matters: 
FY 2015: $107,185
FY 2016: $64,222
FY 2017: $210,458
FY 2018 to date is: $727,510.86

The additional attorney has not been hired yet; the person will likely be hired after July 1 when the funding becomes available.

It's an attorney Brandon hopes she'll never have to see. She says, with her youngest son, Henrico County has been nothing but helpful.

The district says they will continue to work with families to provide what's best for their children.

Henrico County doesn't typically comment on individual student matters.

Andy Jenks, the communications director for Henrico County Public Schools said in an email:

We absolutely believe there is a better way to resolve these issues. We want folks to know they can meet with us, sit down at their convenience, and work together to do what's best for children. That's known as mediation. Mediation is done voluntarily, comes at no cost to a family or to the school division, and is seen as a positive method to address concerns. In many cases, mediation is successful. If a parent or advocate refuses to consider mediation and elects to go to a hearing, then the time and public expense of resolving issues increase dramatically.

The school district has had one case involving a special needs child go to federal court.

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