‘School’s just not safe for him’: Special-needs student’s parents bring suit against district after years of bullying

A Colorado family is suing their school district for its alleged failure to protect their special-needs child from bullying, including being hit 27 times in the head while being filmed by other students.

Amber and Nathan Harford allege their child was the target of bullying incidents that spanned two and a half years. With the assistance of advocacy group Bullying Recovery Resource Center and attorney Igor Raykin, the family has filed a civil lawsuit against Mesa County Valley School District 51 in Grand Junction.

The former special-needs student was said to be involved in several bullying incidents while a student at Orchard Mesa Middle School, ranging from mocking the child’s shoes and speech to the alleged incident in which he was struck dozens of times while being filmed.

The latter resulted in ongoing partial paralysis in the child’s face, the lawsuit says. The child has been out of school for two years, according to Tom Ahlborg, chairman of the Bullying Recovery Resource Center. 

“He’s been going to online school, but he’s never been back in-person to school, not just because of the pandemic but because school’s just not safe for him,” Ahlborg told The Daily Sentinel. “Obviously, a developmentally disabled kid or special-needs kid doesn’t thrive with online learning. However, there’s not really been a lot of options [from] the district.” 

The student who attacked the child in the video was involved in a criminal case and pled guilty, according to Raykin. However, the school district has reportedly not fulfilled several of its obligations, including providing a requested safety plan. 

“We not only haven’t received a safety plan, but we haven’t received a special education plan from them for a long time as well,” Raykin said in a local TV report. “It’s up to them to know what’s going on with this child, but they’ve basically given up on that responsibility.” 

The district says in a statement to the Daily Sentinel that it takes “the safety and security of our students and staff extremely seriously. We are aware of the lawsuit that has been filed … and we will vigorously defend the allegations that have been made, in a court of law.” 

In addition to the alleged bullying, Ahlborg is concerned the student’s right to Free Appropriate Public Education, which entitles disabled students to certain educational provisions, has been compromised. Ahlborg maintains the child’s evaluations were conducted by a school nurse, which he believes is inadequate given the child’s condition. A request to have an independent evaluation conducted was resisted by the school. Ultimately, the evaluation was paid for through fundraising efforts. 

Raykin claims to have other issues with District 51’s handling of special-needs students, having personal experience representing other students in lawsuits against the district.  

“I don’t know how else to put this, except to say that this district almost functions as an enemy of special-needs kids,” Raykin told the television station. “I have never seen so much outright hostility against special-needs kids as I have from this district.”