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Schools settle lawsuit filed by parents of handicapped boy

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 3, 2000


TAMPA -- The Hillsborough County school district has settled a long-running legal battle with the parents of a child with Down's syndrome.

With the blessing of a federal judge, the district has agreed to pay Keith and Nikole Whitehead a lump sum for damages and attorneys' fees and to establish a training program for parents and teachers of exceptional education students.

The School Board approved the settlement Tuesday night at a regular meeting.

"Overall, it is a good settlement in that it puts it all to bed and gets it all done," said Tom Gonzalez, an attorney for the school district.

Neither the Whiteheads nor their attorney could be reached Tuesday night.

The settlement brings to a close a battle that began in 1992 when the Whiteheads sued the school district, claiming that their son, Andrew, had received an inadequate education. Specifically, the parents alleged that the district had taken Andrew out of individual speech therapy and placed him in group therapy, a move that they said slowed his progress and damaged his communication ability.

In April 1998, a federal jury awarded the Whiteheads $600,000 for retaliation by the school district, but found that the district had not discriminated against the boy. A judge later reduced that verdict and the Whiteheads appealed that decision.

The monetary settlement reached Tuesday is less than $600,000 and includes damages and attorneys' fees, Gonzalez said.

In addition, the district agreed to develop a training program to guide teachers and parents of exceptional education students. Funding for the program will come from the Whiteheads, with dollar-for-dollar matching by the School Board. According to the agreement, the Whiteheads will be allowed to contribute up to $25,000.

In other action, the School Board voted to appoint Scott Myers, now the principal of Knights Elementary School, to principal of Lithia Springs Elementary School. It also agreed to hold a public hearing on the school district officials' proposed desegregation plan on June 13, with a board vote on June 20.

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