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September 28, 1998 - St. Louis and Cape Girardeau
In a case involving sexual abuse by a classmate and failure to provide an appropriate education, the State of Missouriís Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), the Meadow Heights R-II School District and the parents of a former student with disabilities have entered into a settlement agreement of $250,000 for damages, attorneysí fees and expenses, various vocational and rehabilitation services and state-wide policy changes.
Bonnie and Tom McCarter settled their claims filed on behalf of their son, Thomas, against Missouriís Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), Missouriís Assistant Commissioner for Special Education, the Meadow Heights R-II School District and four of the school districtís former and/or current employees.
Thomas, a young adult with cerebral palsy and undetermined mental impairments, is non-verbal and requires assistance with buttons, zippers and snaps. To communicate he utilizes various electronic communication devices, gestures and vocal sounds.
In this complex case the McCarters claimed that Meadow Heights did not provide Thomas an appropriate educational program. Specifically, the school defendants failed to perform testing to properly evaluate Thomasí needs and abilities, to furnish related services such as occupational and physical therapy, to offer a curriculum and means for effective communication that would meet Thomasí needs and abilities and to provide a personal aide to assist Thomas in the restroom. Without informing Bonnie and Tom McCarter, one of Thomasí classmates, who had a reputation for aggressive physical violence towards other students, began accompanying Thomas to the restroom at the request of the classroom aide.
Over a three year span of time from 1990 to 1993 Thomasí behavior at school changed dramatically. The McCarters claimed that after three years of attempts by Thomas to inform his teacher and teacherís aide through gestures and "acting-out," behavior for which he was disciplined and even suspended from school, it was discovered that he had been sexually abused on numerous occasions in the schoolís restroom by the same student, who had been asked to assist him with toileting.
Trauma resulting from the sexual abuse, which has required extensive psychiatric therapy and counseling, prevented Thomas from continuing his education at Meadow Heightsí only school building. The school district provided homebound educational services for the remainder of the 1992-93 academic year and through most of the summer of 1993, but as the 1993-94 school year approached neither DESE nor Meadow Heights had a suggested placement for Thomas. Although DESE took some steps to find another school for Thomas to attend, they never took the responsibility for making sure that would happen, nor did DESE have policies or procedures in place to handle the situation.
Despite the tremendous burden, the McCarters decided to divide their family in order to establish a second household in the Jackson School District, so Thomas would have a school to attend. Although Meadow Heights eventually agreed to pay tuition and provide transportation for Thomas to stay in the Jackson School District for the rest of the 1993-94 school year, no guarantees were given that the arrangement would continue the following year. Faced with many uncertainties and the ongoing trauma from the sexual abuse, Bonnie and Tom once again split their family, to ensure that Thomas would have an appropriate education. The financial and emotional strain of managing two households and struggling with the trauma from the abuse eventually led to the loss of the family farm and the life for which Bonnie and Tom had worked many years together to give their children.
In addition to the turmoil directly associated with the sexual abuse and the loss of their farm, the McCarter family has endured much pain and emotional stress as a result of Bonnie developing cancer. The normal tragedy of breast cancer was made far worse by her decision to forego treatment, when her condition was first discovered, because she felt her family and Thomas in particular needed her full attention on a daily basis. In August, 1997, a year and a half after a lump was found in her right breast, Bonnie had a radical mastectomy and lymphectomy and began chemotherapy. Pushing herself to return to work and to continue holding her family together, the symptoms of a second occurrence of cancer were dismissed for quite some time as being the result of stress and exhaustion. A year after having surgery and chemotherapy for breast cancer, Bonnie underwent surgery for ovarian cancer and is currently having chemotherapy.
The settlement endorsed by the court will provide the McCarters with funds and services needed to help them enable Thomas to reach a greater level of independence and future security. It will also have wide-ranging impact through DESEís agreement to arrange presentations at two state-wide conferences for special education administrators on reducing the risk of abuse to students with disabilities and its agreement to develop new policies clearly delineating when and how it will determine whether a local school district is unable or unwilling to provide an appropriate education.
Although DESE and the Meadow Heights R-II School District formally denied any wrongdoing, the McCarters see the settlement as a vindication of their position. Bonnie feels she has learned a very hard lesson, a lesson she wants to be able to share with others. "There is one thing I wish to pass on to every loving parent. Do not ever doubt your child. If your child comes to you, LISTEN TO HIM, BELIEVE HIM, BE THERE FOR HIM. Donít LET HIM STUMBLE IN THE DARK BECAUSE YOU DOUBT. You know him better than anyone else in this world, stand behind him. Do not let other people tell you things, you know in your heart are not true. Question these things, for you are the only one who can help him."
The McCarters hope that awareness of their experiences will help other families. Bonnie states: "I will gladly share my story with anyone who feels they may be stumbling, needs help, has questions, doubts. I would dearly love to save, if just one family, the pain and torment we have gone through."
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