Brent Batten: Service dog settlement leaves questions unanswered

BRENT BATTEN

For three years, Bill Hughes’ legal case against Collier County schools stood like a lighthouse, offering parents in similar straights guidance as they sought to navigate complex legal and educational hierarchies.

Then suddenly, the light went out.

Hughes and his wife, Brenda, have settled the lawsuit they filed in 2007 on behalf of their son, Derek, for $125,000.

The suit sought to force the schools to allow Derek’s service dog to attend classes with him to help him deal with his autism.

Parents in Collier County and beyond were watching the Hughes case because it could have set a precedent as to whether service dogs should be allowed in schools under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

When he filed the lawsuit three years ago, Hughes said he was determined to see the case through. A successful businessman who had already moved his son to another school in Pennsylvania, Hughes said the case wasn’t about money, or even his son’s circumstances.

“We’re not fighting for our son anymore. If you give up, it allows the district to continue this pattern of discrimination. I couldn’t sleep at night moving my family and saying this is someone else’s problem,” Hughes said at the time.

But with the settlement he signed, Hughes appears to have bowed out of the fight.

In the four-page document signed by Bill and Brenda Hughes, they agree not to make any disparaging comments about the school system. They also agree never to try to enroll Derek in school in Collier County.

The entire $125,000 is directed to Hughes’ attorney’s trust account.

Cathy Cannivet is one of the parents who was watching the Hughes case with great interest. She also had filed suit against the district after her son was subjected to intense bullying at school.

Like Hughes, she claimed the school district engaged in a pattern of delaying and denying in order to drag out the legal process. Her son has since turned 18 and she eventually gave up the fight but she hoped the Hughes case would continue to trial.

Hughes had the financial wherewithal to jump through all the legal hoops required to bring a suit against the district’s schools, Cannivet said. “He exhausted everything he had to exhaust. He submitted to mediation. He was waiting for his day in court. Were his child’s civil rights violated? Everyone was waiting for this one case to make it to the federal courts. Then the beacon went out. I’m really perplexed.”

Cannivet and Hughes started a website, Collier Parents Seeking ESE Reform, for parents alleging school-based discrimination. As of Monday, the site had about 5,400 visits in its four years of existence. She says she’s tried to reach Hughes since the settlement was announced but hasn’t been successful.

Hughes didn’t return my phone message asking for comment.

Cannivet says the outcome of the Hughes case could deter others from taking on the system. “You can spill your money and your guts for four years and all you’ll get is $125,000,” she said.

Left unanswered is the question of whether federal law requires service dogs like Derek’s to be allowed in schools. Carol Christopherson of Jacksonville is president of Florida Service Dogs Inc. and sits on Gov. Charlie Crist’s Commission on Disabilities.

She cited Duval County as one district that has allowed service dogs in the past but said she knows of no district in Florida that has done so without a fight. The state doesn’t have a policy, leaving it up to districts to decide, Christopherson said. She named Connecticut and New York as two states that work cooperatively with service dog organizations.

At least one other service dog case is pending in Collier County and there are others across the country.

“It’s too bad the Department of Education doesn’t grab the reins and do something,” Cannivet said.

__ Connect with Brent Batten at naplesnews.com/staff/brent_batten

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