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School lawsuit exposes potential issues

March 31, 2014

What might normally have been a routine request from a local couple for different placement for their daughter in the Walpole High School special education program, ended up escalating, probably unnecessarily, into an explosive lawsuit that has exposed some potentially serious issues in the way that school administrators handle parent complaints and follow up on them.

Kevin and Joanne Tripp, the parents of a 17-year-old Walpole High School student with down syndrome currently enrolled in the Walpole High School special education program, alleged in a lawsuit filed in federal court last year that school officials were hostile toward their family’s efforts to place their daughter into a different special education program – sending them a threatening letter in response to what the Tripps claim was intended to be an innocent conversation with their daughter’s teacher about her placement options within the program.

The suit itself was dismissed by a federal court judge earlier this month, but the parents have promised to appeal and also plan to file suit against the district as a whole eventually. But even though the lawsuit itself was dismissed, the Tripps have also claimed separately in interviews with 180, in public statements, and in letters to school officials that the School Superintendent never responded to requests to meet with them to discuss the issue; that their daughter’s teacher has retaliated against their daughter because of the ongoing suit; and that the teacher also admitted under oath during a court deposition to changing notes from a meeting between the Tripps, the teacher, and the special education department head regarding their daughter’s placement options. The notes were allegedly changed after the meeting occurred, as a direct result of the lawsuit, and were made to be somewhat less favorable to the family’s positions at that meeting.

The Tripps’ recent effort to seek a resolution to the matter from the School Committee have also been unsuccessful.

The lawsuit itself centers around a letter that the Tripps received from Walpole High School principal Stephen Imbusch on September 24, 2012. The letter was in response to a conversation that occurred between Joanne Tripp and her daughter’s teacher four days prior.

The Tripps had attended a meeting on September 20, 2012, with the chair of the Special Education Department and their daughter’s teacher, to discuss putting their daughter in the Language Inclusion program as part of their daughter’s IEP (Individualized Education Plan). Meetings between members of the special education department and parents to discuss specific placement options are common practice. According to the Tripps, the department chair and teacher were both amenable at this meeting to allowing them to review the Language Inclusion program for possible placement for their daughter.

The conversation in question, that sparked the letter from Imbusch, came that afternoon when Joanne Tripp said she approached the teacher in the school parking lot while picking her daughter up from school, and “asked to speak with her about that morning’s IEP meeting.” Tripp claimed later that she “attempted to advocate for her daughter’s well-being and also conveyed her sentiments regarding the IEP meeting.”

In an interview with 180 last month, Kevin Tripp, who was not present during the conversation, said his wife was simply concerned that the teacher was not supportive of their requests for different placement options and was not standing up for them.

The Tripps have claimed that the conversation was cordial and respectful.

But the teacher stated during a court deposition that when Tripp approached her to talk to her, Tripp positioned herself “in close proximity” to her and was “loud” and “aggressive.”

The teacher informed the chair of the department, who in turn informed principal Stephen Imbusch. Imbusch sent the Tripps a letter, CCed to the Walpole Police and a few other school officials, accusing Joanne Tripp of “confronting” the teacher and of speaking to her in a “highly inappropriate manner.” Imbusch wrote in the letter that Tripp should not communicate with the teacher unless she first scheduled a meeting, and that any future conversations outside of a scheduled meeting would be referred to the police on a trespassing charge.

The Tripps’ lawsuit contended that the letter violated Joanne Tripp’s First Amendment right to speak to school officials regarding her daughter’s education, that the letter inflicted emotional distress on her, and that the letter defamed her because it was also sent to police and other school officials and could have been circulated from those individuals to others in the community.

On Feb. 11, federal district court judge Rya Zobel dismissed the case on all three of Tripps’s counts. Zobel ruled that the school was not infringing on her free speech, because she was still free to talk to her child’s teacher as long as she made an appointment; that school officials had not intentionally sought to inflict emotional distress; and that if any defamation occurred, it was likely more because Joanne Tripp herself had talked to others about the contents of the letter. The judge found that Tripp had not provided enough evidence of specific damages she incurred as a result of the letter.

The Tripps have filed an appeal and are also planning to file suit against the school district itself at some point in the future.

Kevin Tripp has attended two different School Committee meetings in the past three months, first on January 23 and again on March 13, to speak during the Committee’s “citizen comments” part of the agenda, hoping they could intervene to reach a resolution.

Tripp told the School Committee on Jan. 23 that they had attempted to avoid a lawsuit as much as possible, initially requesting a meeting with the School Superintendent through a letter from their attorney on October 18, 2012. The school district’s attorneys sent a response, “ignoring” their request for a meeting, and stating that “no apology will be forthcoming,” according to Tripp.

“The letter had an aggressive tonality and it was clear that WHS had no interest in understanding our side or considering a positive resolution,” Tripp told the School Committee.

Tripp also said that in May 2013 they had a meeting with the district’s insurance attorney, in hopes of reaching a settlement. The Tripps say that the district was unwilling to offer any monetary compensation, which the Tripps said was only so that they could recoup legal costs at that point in the process, and that “no apology letter” was going to come.

In an interview with 180, Tripp said that the family sought what they believed to be “reasonable solutions,” including an apology letter, a “buffer between [their daughter’s] teacher and us, and some measure of protection for our daughter, in addition to compensation to cover legal costs.”

Tripp also told the School Committee that on Oct. 1, 2012, the Tripps received the meeting notes from their Sept. 20 IEP meeting that stated that “the team had rejected what was actually agreed to in the meeting, and was written in a way to suggest that this reflected the discussion during the meeting.”

“In later document exchanges, we noted an email from the teacher to the Director of Special Education at WHS stating that the meeting notes ‘were done, but I am not sure if you want to change it based on latest developments. Please advise.’,” Tripp claimed. “Additionally, in the recent deposition of [the teacher], she revealed under oath that the meeting notes from our meeting were indeed changed as a direct result of the parking lot conversation,” Tripp claimed.

Tripp also told the School Committee that he and his wife had told the insurance attorneys at their meeting in May 2013 that they had expressed concerns to Imbusch about “acts of intimidation and retaliation by [the teacher] against [their] daughter.” Tripp said the family provided a list of specific examples to school officials on June 20, but “received a dismissive, condescending, and downright aggressive reply from Walpole attorneys denying that any of the events we cited occurred and threatening that they found our list ‘reckless and actionable’,” Tripp said.

“Again, Walpole did not attempt to contact students and/or parents who could verify our claims. As with our original effort to reach out for a collaborative resolution to the parking lot conversation, Walpole shows zero interest in even considering our concerns about our daughter’s well-being,” he told the School Committee.

Tripp also noted that he felt the special education classroom their daughter and other students spent the school day in did not comply with Mass. State law requiring that special education classrooms be “equal in all physical respects to … general education … classrooms.” The Tripps claim that their daughter spends the majority of the school day in a “dark, windowless room.”

“We continue to feel that it is less than ideal for our child,” Tripp said. “Put alternatively, how would you feel if your child was in a dark windowless room for 5-plus hours in the school day?”

School Committee Chairwoman Nancy Gallivan sent Tripp a response in mid-February stating that the Committee had looked into the matter and “determined that the issues presented in your letter were handled correctly and professionally by the school district.”

Tripp attended the Mar. 13 School Committee meeting to rebut that letter, stating that he was “disappointed” in their response and that he’s “not so sure that the residents of Walpole would agree with this finding.”

“I think that the majority of residents would have preferred to have the School District meet with us instead of spending tax dollars on legal fees,” Tripp said.

“I provided evidence that the school took retribution on us by rescinding an offer to let us view a potential program for our daughter, and that official documents were altered to cover this up. I believe Walpole residents would want the school to stand by their word and not try to cover things up when they change their mind,” he said.

“When I came to you on January 23, my appeal was pretty simple; I was looking for a town entity that might be as concerned with protecting the trampled rights of a Walpole resident and taxpayer as opposed to just covering up Walpole School District errors and misdeeds,” Tripp said. “Instead of helping, you became part of the cover-up.”

“I also wonder how many other major issues and problems the School Committee has either neglected to look into or automatically sided with the school district. By ‘rubber-stamping’ the School District’s actions you have failed me and my family, and, from my perspective, shown little evidence that you will protect other residents of Walpole when it comes to concerns with school errors and misdeeds,” he said.

In a statement released to the media this month via email, Walpole School Superintendent Lincoln Lynch said that in fact “Mr. and Mrs. Tripp never asked to meet with me to discuss the matter after they received Principal Imbusch’s correspondence.” Lynch said that actually the Tripps’ attorney contacted him with a “three-page letter in which he made multiple demands and threatened litigation.”

“Obviously, this action forced me to involve the District’s legal counsel, whose advice I have followed ever since,” Lynch said.

Tripp told 180 that the original letter came from their attorneys because they felt that after receiving a letter from Imbusch copied to the Walpole police, they felt they “needed professional support in discussing [the issue] with the school.”

“The letter did not contain ‘a list of demands’; rather we proposed a few solutions that could be the focus of our discussion,” Tripp claimed.

A copy of the letter obtained by 180 indicates that it did indeed make multiple requests, but did not specifically threaten litigation. The letter included four requests “for the sake of exploring an expedited resolution” – a written apology, the reassignment of the Tripps’ daughter to another teacher, the scheduling of a meeting, and the “implementation of appropriate provisions for the necessary staffing/aide” of their daughter.

Tripp said they did not demand compensation from the school district until later on, and only because they wanted to cover their legal expenses. He said the legal battle itself also came later in the process, after they realized that school officials were not receptive to their concerns.

“We would certainly have preferred a meeting to avoid the expense of litigation,” Tripp said.

In the statement, Lynch defended the district’s investigation into the matter, saying that “Principal Imbusch, along with other District administrators and me, meet with parents regularly to address concerns and come to reasonable resolutions.”

“From the beginning, it was clear the Tripps were not interested in such a meeting or such a solution. In my tenure as Superintendent, this is the only federal court case that has occurred. This is a testament to the District’s ability to amicably resolve parents’ concerns,” Lynch said in the statement.

Lynch said that the costs of the legal suit are so far being borne only by the town’s insurance carrier, not by taxpayers directly.

Here are my comments, for what it is worth:

The issue obviously escalated unnecessarily, perhaps from both sides.

Is it possible that the school system is forgetting the real issue here? Two parents have potentially valid concerns about their daughter’s teacher, and her placement options within the special ed. program. In their efforts to bring it up with their daughter’s teacher, they received a letter from the school principal that they feel was unfair and very aggressive. Meanwhile, they have presented evidence that their daughter is being retaliated against and their original requests for different placement options were rejected even after supposedly being initially agreed to.

The initial letter to the School Superintendent requesting a meeting seemed to make reasonable demands that were essentially similar to the requests that the Tripps had made in their initial IEP meeting.

What do you think?

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