9 Investigates woman's fight to keep special-needs son in school

9 Investigates the law that allows students with disabilities to stay in school longer and why one mother wants that.

SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. — A Seminole County mother is fighting to prevent her special-needs child from graduating this spring.

She told investigative reporter Karla Ray that her son can’t read or write his own name, and it’s all because of a tragedy we covered 18 years ago.

Harry Hepburn Jr. was only a few months old when investigators say his babysitter shook him so hard it caused permanent brain damage.

Content Continues Below

As 9 Investigates learned, state law and Department of Education rules allows for students with certain special needs to stay in high school beyond age 18, and that’s what Hepburn’s mother wants Seminole County Public Schools to do.

Hepburn was hitting all the milestones expected of a 5-month-old, but that all changed in September 2000 at the hands of his babysitter.

“That's when everyone's life changed.  He was a healthy baby boy. He was a chunky butterball. He was just learning how to sit and do all those things, and it was all wiped out,” Donna Hepburn said.

The babysitter was sentenced to probation for shaking Harry.  Now, at 18, the Lake Mary High School senior functions like a young child.

“We hear about shaken baby (syndrome), but you never understand it until you're living it, and walking in those shoes, and it's really hard,” Donna Hepburn said.

She showed us her son’s individualized education plan, or IEP.  She summarized that his goal is to learn basic life skills that she doesn't believe he’ll have by an expected spring graduation date.

“He's just starting to blossom. He's just starting to communicate,” Donna Hepburn said.

Florida law and State Department of Education rules state that all students with disabilities aged 3 to 21 have the right to a "free and appropriate education" until they turn 22.

But while some public school districts have written policies dictating how to handle cases, such as Harry’s, SCPS has not.

“The children that are low-functioning, they’re just slipping through the cracks,” Donna Hepburn said.

School leaders are limited on what they can say, due to federal student privacy laws, but after we asked questions on behalf of the Hepburn family, a district spokesperson told us that, generally, if a student has met all their graduation requirements, they won’t be kept in school.

“He is not ready. He's developmentally delayed, and just because he's 18 doesn't mean he has the tools to move on,” Donna Hepburn said.

District leaders have now promised to set up a meeting with the Hepburn family to assess when Harry should graduate.