In March the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the United States Department of Education cleared Riverside Elementary School District 96 and a district lawyer of charges that they threatened to retaliate against the children of a Riverside resident during a heated discussion outside a school board meeting at L.J. Hauser Junior High School on Sept. 18, 2012.
Sue Corrigan filed the complaint with the OCR last year. In her complaint, Corrigan claimed that attorney Julie Lewis of the firm Scariano, Himes and Petrarca threatened to deny services to Corrigan’s children when Lewis left the school board meeting to talk to Corrigan and Stephen Battersby while they were speaking to a reporter in a hallway outside the library at Hauser. Corrigan and Battersby had just made public statements to the school board.
The OCR determined that there was not enough evidence to support Corrigan’s claim of retaliation.
“OCR determined that there is insufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case of retaliation and, thus, there is insufficient evidence to conclude that the district retaliated against the complainant,” said the ruling, which the Landmark obtained by filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
Corrigan had claimed Lewis told her that she could negatively impact the Individual Education Plans (IEPs) of Corrigan’s special-needs children, which would be a violation of the American with Disabilities Act.
Lewis said that she was relieved by the decision.
“I was pleased with the outcome,” Lewis said. “In my practice I am always very child-centered and child-focused so I would never, ever, insinuate or otherwise, that I would ever do anything that would not be in the best interest of a student with a disability.”
Corrigan said that she was not surprised by the ruling.
“Retaliation is a really hard one to prove,” Corrigan said. “They interviewed people, but didn’t find enough evidence is what I would say. … I was glad that they investigated thoroughly.”
The Office of Civil Rights separately interviewed Corrigan, Battersby, Lewis, District 96 Superintendent Jonathan Lamberson and Mary Ellen Meindl, the former president of the District 96 Board of Education. None of the witnesses testified under oath.
The OCR even visited Hauser to see where the heated discussion took place. Corrigan had told the OCR that Lewis told her that she was “fixing” her child’s IEP.
“OCR finds that although the conversation … was contentious and unpleasant, it was not adverse,” the ruling states. “On balance based on the facts of this particular case, the evidence does not support that [Lewis] made a clear threat to detrimentally affect the IEP process for [Corrigan’s children] and OCR found no evidence that [Lewis] did in fact negatively affect the IEP process for these students,” the ruling states.
After the confrontation Lewis did not attend any IEP meetings about Corrigan’s children. Another lawyer from her law firm did so.
The heated discussion began when Lewis told Battersby, who was talking to a reporter, that it was a misdemeanor to distribute a police report related to allegations of child sexual abuse involving Corrigan and Battersby’s daughter against the daughters of Ames School Principal Colleen Lieggi.
Both Corrigan and Battersby’s daughter had been cleared of the allegations by police. School board members had not read the police report regarding the allegations, which were at that time a year old. Battersby’s daughter resigned as a part-time teacher in District 96 in December 2011.
After Corrigan told Lewis that she didn’t want to have anything to do with her, Lewis mentioned her role in special education in what Lewis told the OCR was an attempt to defuse the situation by demonstrating “an area of shared passion.”
According the ruling, Lewis acknowledged that her attempt to defuse the situation didn’t work and instead inflamed it. She acknowledged that her timing was poor in referring to the IEP goals of Corrigan’s children.
Meindl said that she was confident that the OCR would rule in the district’s favor.
“The truth always prevails,” Meindl said.