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

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — 9 Investigates looked into why Orange County Public School leaders have not reassigned an attorney from handling issues involving a student with special needs, even after the girl’s parents filed a complaint and a legal notice accusing that attorney of discriminating against them.

Channel 9 investigative reporter Karla Ray first learned that OCPS attorney Sarah Koren named Siena Parnes, her parents and the Florida Department of Education in a lawsuit over specialized services ordered by the state. Parnes’ attorney said they’re being retaliated against for advocating for their special-needs third grader.

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In a notice of possible Title IX violations, attorney Stephanie Langer told district leaders that the suit filed against the Parnes was a follow-up to a threat made by Koren.

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.

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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.”

“Difficult probably isn’t the appropriate word,” Joy Parnes said. “It’s been traumatizing to watch a little girl who wants to be educated, who has the desire to be educated, who can be educated.”

Documents provided by the Parnes family attorney show the lawsuit filed against them and the FDOE came after Joy Parnes requested that attorney Sarah Koren no longer be involved in matters involving her daughter’s education.

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“When I filed that professional standards complaint, everything for Siena went downhill,” Parnes said.

9 Investigates requested copies of any complaints filed against Koren, and learned that she has two active professional standards inquiries. Those investigations are not released to the public until 10 days after they are finished and presented to the employee.

Parnes’ attorney, Stephanie Langer, wrote in her notice to district leaders that “retaliatory actions” have taken place “since the family became advocating for their daughter,” calling them “personal in nature.” The notice also claims that Koren “made false statements about the family… directly impacting the family’s ability to build good working relationships with school personnel.”

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“This is discrimination and retaliation,” Langer wrote.

“It’s very personal. The animus is very clear whenever [Koren] has interaction with them,” Langer said. “She has poisoned everyone around the student in the school system.”

OCPS released the following statement:

“This case is more complex than what has been represented in the story. The district believes it is inappropriate to discuss pending litigation but will release all student records pertaining to this case at the parent’s request.”

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.