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After child with cerebral palsy faced injuries, mother to sue Madison school district

MADISON, Wis. — A Madison teenager with cerebral palsy suffered severe medical setbacks after Madison Metropolitan School District staffers in the post-graduation “18 to 21” program failed to follow a plan for her daily care, according to her mother and a pending lawsuit citing the teen’s doctor’s notes.

“She wasn’t able to bear her own weight for a while, because it was too painful,” Coffey explained.

A state investigation found the school hadn’t correctly followed the individualized education program, commonly called an IEP and mandated by law for students with special needs. In Ariennea Harris’ case, that meant strict guidelines for how and when she was to use her walking and standing equipment — guidelines the investigation found were violated.

The consequences, both Coffey and notes from Ariannea’s doctors indicate, may have set Ariannea’s walking, standing, and legs back significantly.

‘Something wasn’t right’

For most of her life, Ariannea had successfully breezed through special education programs at MMSD–benefitting from supportive, caring staff who often became close friends of the family.

“There’s lots of great people there. Lots of great people that love and adore her,” Coffey said. “I feel 100 percent I trust them.”

She graduated from East High last year, her mother said. Photos on their wall tell a story of young motherhood and an unbreakable bond: Baby Ariannea with her 17-year-old mom at Coffey’s graduation. Ariannea, seventeen years later, with her mom at Ariannea’s own graduation.

Sitting together on the couch talking to News 3 Investigates, Ariannea is clearly in her happy place. She chirps and laughs as her mother talks, telling her story of medical setback after staff failed to closely follow a plan that laid out how to use her specialized equipment for standing while at school.

Shortly after Ariannea entered the 18 to 21 program last fall, her demeanor seemed to change. Perpetually happy, she started to act out instead. Staff would call her mother in alarm.

“She wasn’t so happy. Something wasn’t right,” Coffey explained. Later, “She was starting to lash out and cry.”

It was tough to diagnose the problem, given that Ariannea is non-verbal and has a very high pain tolerance. Coffey addressed some concerns with the staff and her daughter’s case manager, and was assured the needed changes would be made and that the staff would get training on ensuring they used Ariannea’s specialized walking equipment correctly, as her IEP called for.

But problems continued. Arianna started having seizures — several of them a day. Another IEP meeting was called and a routine question came up about whether Ariannea was using the proper shoes and braces to balance her uneven legs while in the stander.

“I remember it clear as day [the case manager] bowed his head and said, No, we don’t. And I said, Excuse me, what did you say? Just to clarify that I heard him say the right thing,” Coffey said.

“He said, ‘We haven’t been putting them on her at all.'”

DPI investigation finds noncompliance

Coffey submitted a complaint to the state Department of Public Investigation. The ensuing investigation found district noncompliance in a number of areas, including the following related to her standing and walking:

  • Ariannea’s IEP called for using the stander at least 30 minutes and up to one hour a day. According to staff journals, she would at times be left in for longer than the plan required
  • Ariannea’s IEP didn’t clearly state when the specialized cast and shoe equipment for her stander were to be used. As a result, they were used inconsistently and led to staff confusion

A spokesperson for the Madison Metropolitan School District said they couldn’t comment on this story because of privacy concerns.

“In order to protect the privacy of all parties involved, including our student, I am not able to provide specific information or details related to this complaint,” spokesperson Tim LeMonds explained.

News 3 Now is not naming the teacher in question, because it is not known if he faced discipline. While Coffey blames him as the case manager for much of what happened, a DPI investigation earlier this year only found the district had been noncompliant with Ariannea’s IEP and did not name the staffers involved. According to Coffey, he is still employed with the district.

Lawsuit claims lasting damage

A completed lawsuit shared with News 3 Investigates and set to be filed in the next few days claims the district’s noncompliance and negligence led to lasting medical damage for Ariannea.

The lawsuit includes multiple doctor’s notes explaining how her leg shape and walking had been severely set back during her time in the 18 to 21 program.

One of Ariannea’s doctors explained how she had heard from Coffey that Ariannea had not worn her braces since she started her transitional program, meaning that for five months, she had been using her standing frame without them.

“The shoes that she wore in the standing frame were shoes in which the insoles had been removed (to accommodate her braces), so would not be appropriate to wear for standing and likely has contributed both to pain and to the red sores her mother has seen on her feet,” the doctor wrote. “Ariannea has always loved being in her standing frame, so this is a very significant change for her.”

“This deterioration in function … is consistent with her malposition in the standing frame.”

Earlier this year, Coffey’s attorney Terry Polich had submitted a claim to the school district for $750,000 due in damages for what had happened. Public records show the school board flatly rejected the request.

“I thought that the school district would be interested in negotiating some type of informal resolution of this case, because it’s a very strong case,” Polich said. “I think it’s not just the legal question. I think this is also a moral question. And the moral question is, what do we value as a community?”

Annually, state finds dozens of districts noncompliant

When families submit complaints to the DPI alleging a school district is violating a student’s IEP, the state launches an investigation in compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

In 60% of those investigations, the state finds IEP noncompliance, according to data shared with News 3 Investigates.

There have been 416 IDEA complaints made to the state from 2018 through the present. Of those, 246 decisions have found noncompliance from the school district — a number that would include Ariannea’s case.

One Madison-area advocacy group has made it their mission to help families navigate issues like these, getting involved with Coffey and her daughter early and helping her with the complaint process. They urge families to file complaints with the DPI when necessary, and help them with the ensuing paperwork.

Martha Siravo, president of Madtown Mommas and Disability Advocates, helps families “build bridges” between their concerns, their IEP teams, and the district.

“Sometimes it’s simple as getting a phone call and kind of going over some really basic information with a family when they’re trying to troubleshoot with the team,” she explained. “As a group, we’re also highly connected to other resources that are doing very similar things when it comes to advocacy for kids who are in special education.”

Other times, in cases like Ariannea’s, it’s a tougher solution.

“Sometimes that bridge is so so far broken that it’s heartbreaking to see what situations have happened due to not communicating and not understanding everything that was put into the IEP,” she noted.

Surgery a possibility

A lot of patience, constant equipment changes, and doctor’s visits have slowly moved Ariannea back to normalcy following what happened.

She’s rarely been back to school since her mother found out. Her legs aren’t back to the way they were before, but her personality is returning to normal. Surgery may be a requirement in the future, Coffey said.

But Coffey’s main concern is that the school didn’t use a stricter approach for her child’s safety — and left the case manager she sees as responsible in charge.

“If it was your child, would you feel comfortable? Absolutely not,” she said.

“It’s her right to be safe.”

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