Parents sue Tennessee school district for ending home instruction to their 7-year-old daughter with cancer

A Tennessee school district is facing a lawsuit for denying home instruction to a 7-year-old student with cancer.

“Caroline S. is a seven-year-old second grader who enjoys gymnastics and…

A Tennessee school district is facing a lawsuit for denying home instruction to a 7-year-old student with cancer.

“Caroline S. is a seven-year-old second grader who enjoys gymnastics and softball, reading and art,” the lawsuit states. “Sadly, she is also battling kidney cancer as her physicians treat her little body with radiation and chemotherapy.”

Caroline was diagnosed with cancer in April and has been receiving intensive treatment ever since. 

“These treatments, themselves, are substantially limiting, as they too suppress Caroline’s immune system,” the lawsuit states. “As a result, Caroline is exceptionally susceptible to contracting illnesses from others. For example, a common cold poses a serious risk in her comprised state and other illnesses like flu could be deadly.” 

Following the diagnosis, Caroline was taken out of Waterville Elementary, a part of Bradley County Schools, and given an assigned homebound teacher to avoid unnecessary risks. According to the lawsuit, Waterville Elementary has over 10,000 students and 1,160 employees. 

At the end of September, school officials told Caroline’s mother that her daughter would have to return to in-person learning or withdraw from the school by Nov. 1. 

Caroline’s parents, referred to as M.S and J.S. in the suit, explained the risks of Carolina returning to in person learning, but allege that school officials wouldn’t reconsider their decision. 

On Nov. 13, Caroline’s pediatric oncologist, Dr. Katye Herring even wrote a letter to the school explaining the continuing need for medical homebound status during the final stages of chemotherapy. 

“At this time while Caroline completes the final stages of her chemotherapy treatment, it would be unsafe for Caroline to participate in face-to-face school at Waterville Elementary, and we are requesting the extension of homebound services for Caroline,” Herring wrote, according to the suit. “This is because participating in in-person school places her at unnecessary risk for an illness that could result in death while she completes her chemotherapy treatment. 

“She is able to complete her schoolwork at home with the help of both her mother and her previous homebound teacher assigned. Once Caroline has completed chemotherapy and her immune system has increased in strength, we will release her to return to school in person in the classroom. We anticipate her return to Waterville Elementary at the start of the January 2024 school year.” 

In response, Waterville Elementary’s lawyers stated in a letter that the school district, not doctors, make the educational decision regarding homebound status, “including its duration.” The school district clarified it would not be extending Caroline’s homebound instruction.  

The legal representatives from Caroline’s family claim the school district and board of education violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act by denying Carolina access to public-school education. 

“Caroline’s cancer is a ‘disability’ under the ADA and Section 504,” the lawsuit states. “That is, it is a medical impairment that substantially limits Caroline’s major life activities of immune function, cell growth, and, being in the kidneys, her excretion of waste. 

“BCS may not roll the dice with Caroline’s life during the final stages of her cancer treatment by arbitrarily cutting off medically necessary homebound treatment. Instead, the ADA and Section 504 afford Caroline a reasonable accommodation: Receiving her schooling via medical homebound instruction until her chemotherapy treatment is concluded. That is reasonable for Caroline’s medical needs, and it is not inconsistent with BCS’s own policy.” 

In response to the lawsuit, Bradley County Schools maintains it provided “the best possible education.” 

“We are aware of the recently filed lawsuit,” the district told local WTVC in a statement. “We are committed to providing all students, including students with disabilities, illnesses, or other challenges, with the best possible education. We did that in this case, and we stand ready to continue to do so for this student and for everyone else. Since this matter is in litigation, we have no further comment at this time.” 

Caroline’s parents are seeking declaratory relief of violation of the ADA and Section 504, Caroline’s homebound instruction to continue through the duration of her chemotherapy treatment and until her immune system is strong enough to attend in person, and reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs.