9 Investigates

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

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — 9 Investigates learned Orange County Public Schools is now in a legal battle with a special needs student and her family, as well as the Florida Department of Education. OCPS’ attorney filed a lawsuit against those parties over an order to provide specialized services to that third grader.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray first exposed the ruling from the state that the district failed to properly educate Siena Parnes back in November. Now, the district is arguing in court records that it did offer services to help Parnes, but she and her parents refused them.

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In November, the Florida Department of Education had ordered OCPS to provide compensatory services for failing to honor Siena’s individualized education plan amid the switch to virtual learning last spring due to COVID-19. Shortly after, the state ruled in the family’s favor a second time, for the fall semester.

“I honestly thought she would be educated, but they’ve complied with nothing,” Siena’s mother, Joy Parnes, said.

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9 Investigates learned OCPS wrote in court records that “any failure of the student to make progress is based on the parents’ refusal to act relating to participation in the educational opportunities offered to the student.” The suit also claims that “the speech language pathologist made multiple attempts to provide services, and the occupational therapist attempted weekly to communicate with the parent and provide work for the student to no avail.”

Disability rights attorney Stephanie Langer said those claims are false.

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“The lawsuit has nothing to do with the student. It’s a fight between the state and the district, and yet this student is caught up in this fight, and she’s failing as a result of this fight,” Langer said.

The lawsuit was just dismissed by the 5th District Court of Appeals for lack of jurisdiction, but the district is still pursuing the same argument against the Parnes family with the Division of Administrative Hearings.

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Every day that passes without the services ordered twice by the DOE, Siena falls further behind.

“It has destroyed her,” Parnes said. “Her confidence is gone, her self-esteem. She’s at a critical point… there is no equity in education.”

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A school district spokesperson said OCPS does not comment on pending litigation, but 9 Investigates put in a request for Siena’s full student file, which should show details on everything the district has offered her, and whether the family has participated.

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.

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