TINLEY PARK, Ill. — Officials of a private facility in Harvey that houses and educates children with severe disabilities will soon be forced to choose between laying off staff or discontinuing education to 11 students if they can’t find a district willing to enroll them, according to a lawsuit filed late last month.

The Children’s Habilitation Center, which provides education and other services to students with intellectual disabilities, orthopedic impairments, traumatic brain injuries and other severe mental and physical limitations, claimed several Illinois school districts have refused to enroll their students, in violation of state and federal law.

“This case is about how several Illinois School Districts have put their desire to save money over their legal obligation to provide a free and appropriate public education to 11 severely disabled and medically fragile children who live and go to school at (Children’s Habilitation Center),” the suit said. “Despite every party acknowledging that the children are entitled to a free and appropriate education under the law and that some Illinois school district must enroll them, each School District is passing the buck, and the children remain without a home district and without the legally required public funding for their schooling.”

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The suit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court, requested that the superintendent of the Illinois State Board of Education make a district determination for the 11 students and demands a $622,527 judgment against West Harvey-Dixmoor School District 147, which previously had enrolled the majority of the students.

In addition to ISBE and District 147, the lawsuit names as defendants West Aurora School District 129, Burbank School District 111, Iroquois County School District 9 in Watseka, Frankfort School District 157C and Chicago Public Schools.

An ISBE spokeswoman said she could not comment on pending litigation. Officials from five of the school districts named in the suit either declined comment or did not respond to a request for comment.

Officials from District 157C said they were incorrectly named in the suit, having been mistaken for another Frankfort school district.

While all 11 of the children reside and are educated at the Children’s Habilitation Center, the district that enrolls them pays for their education.

Illinois School Code dictates that the district responsible for enrolling a student is the one where the student’s parent or guardian legally resides. When their parent or guardian cannot be located or otherwise fails to enroll them in school, but still retains legal custody — which is the case for all 11 of these children — the child’s resident district becomes the one where they live.

Since all of the students live at the Children’s Habilitation Center — located within District 147 — they should be enrolled in that district, the lawsuit said.

Prior to this school year, eight of the children were enrolled in District 147, one was enrolled in District 111 and two had not yet reached school age, according to the suit.

In February, District 147 informed the Children’s Habilitation Center that it would no longer enroll any of its students and stopped paying for the educational services the facility was providing those students, according to the suit. It also stopped participating in those students’ individualized education programs, or IEPs, which define their specific educational objectives.

As of last month, District 147 owed the Children’s Habilitation Center $622,527 for educational services the facility had provided the eight students since February, the suit said.

District 111, the only other district that previously had enrolled one of the CHC students, notified the facility in September that it would no longer pay to educate that student because “the family has yet to prove residency for this school year,” according to the suit.

District 147 has since refused to enroll that student and the two CHC students who just came of school age this year, the suit alleges.

With District 147 no longer an enrollment option, the Children’s Habilitation Center sought out the districts where each student’s legal guardian was last known to reside and asked those districts to enroll the student, according to the suit.

West Aurora School District 129, Burbank School District 111, Iroquois County School District 9 in Watseka, Frankfort School District 157C and Chicago Public Schools have all declined to enroll the student or students whose legal guardian’s last known address is within their jurisdiction, the suit alleges.

“It’s all about money from the districts’ perspective,” said Christopher Grohman, an attorney for the Children’s Habilitation Center. “They’re each pointing the finger at each other and saying it’s their responsibility, and the kids get caught in the crossfire.”

By law, when a dispute over a student’s district of residence occurs, ISBE’s superintendent is supposed to review the case and make the final call, Grohman said.

The Children’s Habilitation Center officials claimed in their suit that they have twice written ISBE asking the agency to intervene in this matter, but that ISBE has refused to make district determinations for the 11 students.

Grohman said he understood why local districts wouldn’t want to pay to educate the students, but that “somebody has to do it.”

He said CHC had continued to educate the 11 students as the dispute drags on, but could not do so indefinitely.

“Without payment from the School Districts for these Students, CHC will soon be without educational funds to pay its teachers and other staff,” the suit claimed.

The facility’s operators estimate that without compensation from the districts they will run out of money to educate the students by Nov. 15.

CHC has requested that a judge immediately issue a preliminary injunction requiring District 147 to enroll and pay for all 11 students and participate in IEP meetings for the students to “preserve the status quo,” as the court case plays out.

© 2019 The Daily Southtown
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC