OCPS asks judge to throw out $1.8M lawsuit filed by family of special needs student

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — We have a major update to a story that 9 Investigates broke more than three years ago.

The Orange County Public School district is asking a federal judge to throw out a $1.8 million discrimination lawsuit, filed by the family of a special needs student, whose needs weren’t met during the pandemic.


Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray first introduced us to Siena Parnes in 2020, when the Department of Education and Bureau of Exceptional Student Services confirmed that OCPS skipped out on special reading, math, social skills, and occupational therapy. This new suit argues the family was forced to leave the district due to a lack of a Free and Appropriate Public Education, or FAPE.

Siena Parnes has grown a lot in the last three years since we first met her in 2020.  At that time, she was trying to navigate at-home learning without the services she needed, per her Individualized Education Plan, or IEP.

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

“It was set up for failure,” said Joy Parnes, Siena’s mom. “They set her up for failure.”

The state Department of Education and Bureau of Exceptional Student Services confirmed that OCPS failed to honor Siena’s IEP by skipping specially-designed instruction and occupational therapy for the spring 2020 semester.  The state ruled in the family’s favor a second time for the fall semester of the same year.

“I’d had enough because the struggle hadn’t stopped,” Joy Parnes said.

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

That’s what led to a federal lawsuit against the school district, which argues from March of 2020 to February 2021, the ‘Board engaged in an ongoing practice of failing to provide [Siena] with appropriate aids and services necessary for her to participate’ and that the board ‘discriminated against and even retaliated against Siena and her family solely because of her disabilities.’

The new suit comes after a nasty back-and-forth between the Board and the Parnes family. In fact, OCPS sued Siena, her parents, and the Department of Education over the rulings in 2020, writing “any failure of the student to make progress is based on the parents’ refusal to act.” That lawsuit was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.

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

Now, the district is fighting back again. OCPS filed a motion to dismiss the federal suit, arguing the family failed to exhaust administrative remedies before a suit can be filed.

Parnes isn’t backing down.

“I can’t. Not until I know that it won’t ever happen again. Not only to my child but not to another family. I can’t,” Parnes said.

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The school district does not comment on pending litigation, but did issue this statement:

“Orange County Public Schools does not and will never discriminate against students with disabilities. The motion that was filed by the Orange County School Board speaks for itself.”

You can read the complaint and the motion to dismiss here:

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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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