9 Investigates

Family of Orange County student sued twice by school district files suit over legal fees

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — Orange County Public Schools leaders are expected to have a closed-door meeting on Tuesday to discuss a lawsuit over legal fees of a special needs student whom the district sued twice and lost.

9 Investigates has been breaking new details on the fight of third grader Siena Parnes for months, after the Florida Department of Education ordered OCPS to provide the girl special services she was denied during the coronavirus pandemic.

READ: Family of special needs student in legal battle with OCPS says attorney is discriminating against them

This battle has now become so contentious that the family removed Siena from OCPS.

OCPS provided 9 Investigates a copy of Siena’s entire cumulative file to show they have offered services to help her succeed. District leaders claim in court filings that Siena’s parents have stood in the way of her education.

Still, the FDOE ruled against OCPS and in the family’s favor twice.

READ: ‘There is no equity in education’: Legal battle underway between OCPS, family of special needs student

Siena is 10 now and has been placed in private school during the ongoing back and forth.

“She is at a private school and she’s thriving, she’s thriving,” mom Joy Parnes said.

The Parnes family hired attorney Stephanie Langer to defend them in two separate lawsuits filed by OCPS, both of which were thrown out due to lack of jurisdiction. Now, Langer is suing on the family’s behalf in an effort to recoup legal fees and also in hopes they can move forward amicably.

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“That would be my hope that the District, the Board, the Superintendent, would get together and have a meaningful conversation to award the relief the state ordered them to provide to the student, or rebuild the bridge, or compensate the family for what they have been through so far,” Langer said.

The Parnes and their attorney have asked OCPS repeatedly to reassign board attorney Sarah Koren from Siena’s case, accusing Koren of “discrimination and retaliation” against the family in a notice sent by Langer to the district. However, a professional standards complaint against Koren was dismissed recently, with district officials determining there was “insufficient evidence.”

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“It would be my only hope to send her back to an Orange County Public School, but at this moment, only, I don’t foresee that happening,” Parnes said.

Attorneys for the district have filed a motion to dismiss the legal fees lawsuit. District officials do not comment on pending litigation but have told us in the past that this case is complex, and they’ve written in court filings that they believe services were properly offered to Siena but that her parents stood in the way of her actually receiving them.

Karla Ray

Karla Ray, WFTV.com

Karla Ray anchors Eyewitness News This Morning on Saturday and Sundays, and is an investigative reporter for the 9 Investigates unit.