EDUCATION
ON
TRIAL

The Parnes Family's Quest
for ADA Compliance

The Parneses have been fighting an uphill battle against the Orange County School Board for more than two years, bringing to light a story of resilience and determination. After their young daughter with special needs spent years facing ostracization, discrimination, and mishandled education at her elementary school, they have given everything to ensure that she—and all children with special needs—receive the Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to which they are entitled. Read on as attorney Kevin Ross-Andino takes the lead in this inspiring legal battle between an ordinary family determined to protect their child’s rights and a large public school district trying to maintain its authority! Make sure to check back here for updates as the case continues.

An Overview of the Parnes Family’s Story

The Parnes family’s journey is a testament to resilience, advocacy, and the search for justice in the face of adversity. Their story begins with their daughter who, despite multiple learning and developmental disabilities, has continually strived to navigate the educational landscape.

Siena’s struggles began at Bay Meadows Elementary School, where she faced malignant bullying and ostracism by adults and peers. She was excluded from classroom parties, taunted for not fitting in, and isolated during lunch as a “punishment” for rambunctious behavior that should have been expected of a child with her disabilities. To make matters worse, her individualized education plan (IEP) barely covered her needs, making it difficult to keep up with her classmates. Undeterred by these challenges, Siena’s love of learning grew, as did her ability to play with friends, and she progressed more and more each year.

Nevertheless, the situation came to a head when Siena almost got expelled for her reaction to cafeteria bullying. A group of girls “scooted together” so she could not sit with them, and one girl knocked Siena’s lunch tray to the floor—allegedly by accident. This prompted Siena to call them names and pinch or hit the girl. Then, according to only a couple of student accounts, she said she would “kill” them. Other students’ statements made no mention of the threat. The severe response by school administrators failed to account for Siena’s disabilities, clean behavioral record, and lack of adult witnesses, and it was only after the Parnes family pressed the issue that they changed their decision. However, this was not the last of their obstacles.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) transitioned to online learning but failed to update Siena’s IEP or support her access to Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). For example, she needed assistive technology to show her work because she could not hold up papers in front of the camera due to hand tremors. Her occupational therapist suggested using one of the school’s plastic chairs to maintain continuity in her environment, but that request was denied. She was unable to navigate the online platform because she could not read, but the school refused to provide someone who could follow along on her screen and assist her. Siena’s capabilities were not only stunted by this lack of action but regressed.

Joy Parnes, Siena’s mother, was determined to solve this problem. She tirelessly coordinated with the school, teacher, and paraprofessional to keep Siena on track. She spent hours each day sitting with her daughter to keep her focused and hundreds of dollars on personal technology to help Siena with her schooling. Unfortunately, Siena’s mounting difficulties in completing schoolwork led to increased frustration and behavioral problems at home, which in turn led to stress between Joy and her daughter.

That is when the Parnes family decided to take legal action. In August 2020, they filed a complaint with the Florida Department of Education’s Bureau of Exceptional Education and Student Services (FDOE BEESS) alleging that OCPS denied Siena’s access to FAPE during the spring semester. However, instead of rectifying the problem, an Orange County School Board staff member escalated the situation at an IEP meeting on September 10th. Prior to the meeting, she made a baseless comment to administrators implying that Joy was racist, causing tension between school personnel and the family. Then, she stated during the meeting that perhaps Siena “just isn’t capable” of learning on-level with her peers despite documented progress from before COVID proving otherwise.

Despite these challenges, the Parnes family continued to fight for Siena’s rights. On September 22nd, 2020, they filed another complaint with the FDOE BEESS alleging Siena was denied access to FAPE in the summer and fall semesters, as well as a professional standards complaint against the staff member. The School Board then threatened to take legal action against the Parnes family if their professional standards complaint was not withdrawn—and after the FDOE concluded their investigation in favor of the family for both FAPE complaints, the Board followed through with this retaliatory act.

The FDOE issued a list of corrective actions OCPS needed to take to rectify Siena’s education, ignoring the professional standards complaint, but OCPS chose not to comply. Instead, the School Board filed an administrative complaint to the Department of Administrative Hearings (DOAH) on December 16th against Siena, her parents, and the FDOE to overturn the decision, claiming that the family did not adequately participate in Siena’s education. Furthermore, without permission from the court, the School Board filed a complaint to Florida’s 5th District Court of Appeals (5DCA) on the same grounds. This move represented a new challenge for the Parneses, who now found themselves on the defensive in a legal battle that seemed to have no end in sight.

Meanwhile, Siena continued to have her much-needed accommodations and access to FAPE denied and was continually disciplined in online school for “behavior issues” which were not present before, ultimately hurting her education. This, combined with months of ongoing litigation, led the Parnes family to put her in private school in February 2021.

Ultimately, the 5DCA dismissed Orange County School Board’s complaint for lack of jurisdiction, leading the DOAH to do the same. Neither court wanted to create a precedent for appealing official FDOE decisions regarding education, but the damage had been done to Siena and her family.

Now, they are taking action in the hopes of regaining some financial freedom and advocating for the rights of children with disabilities. Kevin Ross-Andino and his team at éclat Law have sued the School Board on the Parnes’ behalf for violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the prohibition against retaliation under the Americans with Disability Act.

Siena’s story is a powerful reminder that we need to fight for the rights of all children with disabilities and that we must hold our educators and administrators accountable for providing them with the education they deserve. The Parnes’ journey serves as a call to action for other families in similar situations to seek advice and support, and to not be deterred in the pursuit of justice. If you believe that your child is facing discrimination at school based on their disabilities, please contact us today.

IN THE NEWS

JULY 2023: PICKING UP TRACTION

ORANGE COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD FACES $1.8M LAWSUIT FROM FAMILY OF SPECIAL NEEDS STUDENT

WESH 2 News reporter Liv Johnson interviews mother Joy Parnes and her attorney, Kevin Ross-Andino, to discuss their $1.8 million lawsuit against the Orange County School Board. The Florida Department of Education found the school district was in violation of their obligations to provide necessary accommodations to her child with special needs during virtual learning in 2020. The district appealed this decision to the Department of Administrative Hearings and the 5th District Court of Appeals but ultimately lost the case. As a result, the Parnes family removed their daughter from public school and enrolled her in a private school this year. This lawsuit is not just about financial freedom, but also advocating for other children with disabilities who may not have their necessary accommodations met during virtual learning. From WESH 2 News Orlando.

OCPS ASKS JUDGE TO THROW OUT $1.8M LAWSUIT FILED BY FAMILY OF SPECIAL NEEDS STUDENT

The Orange County Public School District (OCPS) is facing a $1.8 million discrimination lawsuit filed by the family of a special needs student who did not receive necessary services during the pandemic. Siena Parnes, introduced to viewers by investigative reporter Karla Ray in 2020, struggled to navigate at-home learning without her Individualized Education Plan (IEP) services. After a second ruling in favor of the family that fall, they decided to file a federal lawsuit against OCPS. The district is now attempting to dismiss the case, claiming that the family failed to exhaust administrative remedies before filing suit. However, Siena’s mother, Joy Parnes, is determined to ensure her daughter receives the support she needs. OCPS denies any discrimination, but this legal battle is far from over. From WFTV 9 Investigates.

OCPS FILES MOTION TO DISMISS $1.8 MILLION DISABILITY LAWSUIT

The Orange County School Board is facing a $1.8 million lawsuit filed by an Orange County family who allege that their child with ADHD and certain motor and processing delays was not given appropriate accommodations during school, particularly while learning remotely during the pandemic. The suit claims that Bay Meadows Elementary failed to provide special paper for writing legibility, blocks for math, hand weights to help with tremors, and someone to read along with instruction when remote during COVID-19 pandemic. However, the school district has argued that the parent’s have not exhausted all administrative remedies before filing the suit. In response, an OCPS spokesperson stated that the school system does not and will never discriminate against students with disabilities. From Spectrum News 13.

MAY 2023: RENEWING THE FIGHT

PARNES V. THE ORANGE COUNTY SCHOOL BOARD

In a bid for financial relief, the Parnes family has hired éclat Law, led by Founding Partner Kevin Ross-Andino, to sue the Orange County School Board for $1.8 million, claiming the Board violated both the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 in its treatment of their daughter during the COVID-19 pandemic.

MAY 2021: A FERVENT LEGAL BATTLE

FAMILY OF ORANGE COUNTY STUDENT SUED TWICE BY SCHOOL DISTRICT FILES SUIT OVER LEGAL FEES

Orange County Public School leaders are set to hold a closed-door meeting to discuss a lawsuit concerning legal fees for Siena Parnes, a special needs student in Florida. The district sued Siena and her family twice and lost, ultimately resulting in the 10-year-old being placed in a private school. The family’s attorney is seeking the recovery of legal fees and hopes to reconcile with OCPS. The Parnes’s accusations of discrimination and retaliation against a School Board staff member have been denied by the district, and OCPS maintains that they offered proper services to Siena but were obstructed by her parents even though the Florida Department of Education ruled against OCPS in this regard. From WFTV 9 Investigates.

FEB. 2021: OCPS SUES CHILD

FAMILY OF SPECIAL NEEDS STUDENT IN LEGAL BATTLE WITH OCPS SAYS ATTORNEY IS DISCRIMINATING AGAINST THEM

Orange County Public Schools has come under fire recently over allegations of discrimination concerning a student with special needs. The parents of the student in question have raised concerns about an OCPS attorney who filed a lawsuit against them and the Florida Department of Education over specialized services ordered by the state. FDOE investigations ruled in favor of providing compensatory services to the student during COVID-19 virtual learning, but OCPS claimed that her lack of progress was based on the parents’ refusal to act on educational opportunities. The parents requested that this attorney be relieved from matters involving their daughter’s education due to false statements she made about the family, claiming these statements were “personal in nature.” A deeper look by WFTV 9 Investigates found two active professional standards inquiries into the attorney’s conduct, with legal action still ongoing. OCPS responded: “This case is more complex than what has been represented in the story…” From WFTV 9 Investigates.

NOV. 2020: FALLING THROUGH
THE CRACKS

REPORT: STATE FINDS OCPS VIOLATED STATE REQUIREMENTS

The results of a Florida Department of Education Inquiry into the Orange County School District and its violations of Free and Appropriate Public Education are concerning. Joy Parnes filed a complaint alleging that her child’s individual education plan was not revised during the transition to online learning from March through May, which raises important questions about the treatment of special education students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The investigation revealed issues with providing specially designed instruction, occupational therapy services, and progress reporting on academic and social skills. The state has ordered OCPS to take corrective action, including staff training on FAPE requirements and IEP revisions. Parnes encourages other parents to take legal action if they are facing similar discrimination, emphasizing that their child is still entitled to services during the pandemic. It is essential that all children, regardless of their unique educational needs, continue to receive an appropriate and equitable education. From FOX35 Orlando.

MAR. 2020: MISHANDLING
STUDENT CONFLICTS

2ND GRADER THREATENED WITH EXPULSION AFTER LUNCHROOM SQUABBLE

Siena Parnes, a 9-year-old with cognitive and developmental disabilities, was prevented from joining other girls at lunch and her lunch tray was knocked to the floor; in retaliation, Siena called the girls “stupid” and “poopie” and allegedly hit, pinched, or scratched one of them. Some students also accused her of saying she was going to kill them. Following this incident, she faced a one-day suspension which eventually changed to a 10-day suspension and an expulsion recommendation. However, the school reversed its decision and allowed her back to school with no further consequences. Joy Parnes, Siena’s mother, believes the school overreacted to childish misbehavior; she notes that there were inconsistencies in the students’ statements on the incident. An advocate for children with disabilities in Central Florida commented that schools have become more strict since the Parkland shooting by placing even young children into threat assessment databases for understandable behavior. Siena has several disabilities including ADHD and sensory processing disorder but does not have a history of behavior problems. From the Orlando Sentinel.