Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school administrators violated the rights of a 6-year-old girl with Down syndrome by taking her out of regular classes, deciding to transfer her to another school within 10 days after she started kindergarten and failing numerous times to communicate with her parents, an administrative law judge ruled in a 110-page decision handed down last week.
Administrative Law Judge Stacey Bice Bawtinhimer also determined that school administrators did not timely develop what is known as an individualized educational plan for the girl or complete necessary assessment and evaluations that would have provided much-needed information that would have smoothed her transition from private pre-school to public school.
Bawtinhimer said the school system violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which was passed in 1975, and is designed to ensure that students who have disabilities are guaranteed a free and appropriate public education.
“These are some of the most vulnerable children in our community,” said McNeil Cronin, the father of Quinn Cronin, at a news conference held Wednesday afternoon at the Forsyth County Central Library. He was there with his wife, Kelly Cronin, and their attorney, Stacey Gahagan, who has a law firm in Durham.
McNeil Cronin said children like his daughter, now 7, deserve to be treated equally in the school system. That did not happen in his daughter’s case, he said.
According to Bawtinhimer’s ruling, school administrators made a series of mistakes that prevented Quinn from being in a mainstream classroom. Quinn’s parents had submitted a request to determine what school Quinn would attend, and in March 2018, she was assigned their first choice of Whitaker Elementary School. Quinn had attended several preschools, including one at Knollwood Baptist. In all those preschools, she had been mainstreamed, Bawtinhimer said.
In two previous individualized educational plans from 2015 and 2016, it was reported that she did not have “behaviors that would impede her learning or that of others,” according to the decision.
And several school administrators knew that Quinn had Down syndrome months before she began attending Whitaker, including principal Sharon Creasy. But according to the ruling, she was accused of stating at an October meeting for individualized education plans that Quinn would never have been placed at the school “had we known she had Down syndrome.”
In her ruling, Bawtinhimer describes several instances in which Quinn’s parents were not immediately notified of meetings. At an Oct. 1, 2018, meeting, Quinn’s parents left early “due to statements made by Principal Creasy and disagreements about (Quinn’s) placement” but the meeting continued for another four hours. No one notified Quinn’s parents that the meeting had gone on without them, according to the ruling.
An individualized education plan and various assessments were not done before Quinn started attending school, Bawtinhimer said in her ruling. That meant that Quinn didn’t have access to special assistance she may have needed so that she could succeed in a mainstream class. The school system didn’t provide a reasonable explanation for what this wasn’t done, she concluded.
She also noted that a teacher who had taught Quinn at Knollwood Baptist was hired at Whitaker but she was not allowed to teach Quinn at the school, even though that might have helped Quinn’s transition from private preschool to public elementary school, Bawtinhimer said.
Nine days after she started attending Whitaker, school administrators decided to transfer her to South Fork Elementary School, where she would be separated from her classmates and placed in a trailer behind the school, according to the ruling.
After many meetings in which McNeil and Kelly Cronin objected to Quinn being separated from her classmates, the parents pulled Quinn from the public school system and placed her at Forsyth Country Day School, where she was allowed in mainstream classes.
Brent Campbell, a school system spokesman, said in a statement Wednesday that the school system takes the education of all students seriously.
The school district, Campbell said, has more than 1,400 highly trained people in its Exceptional Children’s division “whose focus is making sure those children who face varying challenges have an individualized education plan to address their special needs.
“As it relates to the Cronin family and the recent decision by an Administrative Law Judge specifically, the (Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Board of Education) is still weighing its options on how to proceed, which could include an appeal,” Campbell said. “Because the timeline for appeal remains active, we cannot comment further on this matter. While the Cronin family has ability to tell their side of the story freely, federal student privacy laws prevent us from talking specifically about this student.”
Kelly and McNeil described Quinn as kind, sweet and fun-loving. This whole ordeal, McNeil Cronin said, has been incredibly hard but it has been tempered by the support they have found among other parents who have had similar experiences with the school system.
What happened to Quinn was unfair, they said.
“She never had a chance to succeed,” McNeil Cronin said.
Gahagan said Quinn’s case is not isolated. She has dealt with similar cases in federal court across North Carolina, she said.
The immediate next step is not clear, they said.
Bawtinhimer has ordered the school system to come up with an individualized education plan for Quinn and to make sure she has access to services she needs to succeed in mainstream classes. And the school system has been ordered to reimburse the Cronins for expenses of enrolling Quinn at Forsyth Country Day School.
The school system has the option of appealing the decision within the next 30 days. If the school system does, a state hearing review officer appointed by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction will consider the appeal. Beyond that, the case could go to state or federal court.
“We’re taking it step by step,” McNeil Cronin said.