An expensive fight over a boy with autism

When the police came, Stefan Ferrari’s teacher described Oct. 21, 2008, in her classroom for autistic children as “a regular, ordinary day.”

Perhaps it was, except for the tiny digital recorder sewn into the collar of Stefan’s shirt.

The device, planted by Stefan’s mother, collected eight hours and 19 minutes of sound, much of it the banality of yet another school day for a non-verbal 10-year-old. It also captured the teacher and her colleagues talking about sex and martinis. It picked up the teacher’s teasing Stefan after he ate pizza from the trash. And it chronicled the threat of a “be-quiet hit” to a crying child, followed by the repeated slaps of an adult’s hand against Stefan’s bottom.

That single day in an Atlanta classroom led to lawsuits in state and federal courts, to the teacher’s firing, to threats of criminal charges — against Stefan’s parents — and, finally, to what may have been the inevitable fracture of the boy’s family. Atlanta Public Schools spent $1.1 million of taxpayers’ money fighting Stefan’s family in court before agreeing this summer to pay private school tuition and therapeutic expenses into his adulthood.

What happened to Stefan reflects systemic problems in Atlanta’s special education program, according to court filings, other public records and interviews. Auditors said last year the program gets poor academic results and relies too heavily on special schools, such as the ones Stefan attended, to educate some of its most challenging students.

Stefan’s experience also illustrates how aggressively the school district can treat parents when it thinks they want too much for a child, even one who is profoundly disabled.

When news of Stefan’s treatment broke in 2009, school district officials drafted a public response for then-Superintendent Beverly Hall.

“I am horrified and disgusted at what happened to the young man,” the statement read. “He and his family have been treated badly.”

Two months later, the school district sued them.

In its lawsuit, the district suggested Stefan’s father caused his injuries and argued Stefan had no right to “elite private services ... simply because the parents want to choose the ‘best’ programs, in their opinion, for their child.”

The district may have wanted to intimidate other families seeking services that the law requires for children with disabilities, said Rick Lockridge, an acquaintance of the Ferraris’ who has blogged about his autistic son’s experiences in the Atlanta schools.

Last year’s special education audit found a “widespread perception” that the district disregards parents’ complaints and does not engage in appropriate problem-solving. Since 2007, 12 families have taken the district to trial over special education issues; five of those cases involved children with autism.

“The child was clearly wronged and he was in the district’s care when he was wronged,” Lockridge said. “On top of seeing their child suffer, they had to endure the suffering imposed by APS.”

Stefan is 13 now, attending a private school that specializes in educating children with autism. Besides being autistic, a psychologist’s report included in court files says, Stefan has a severe intellectual disability and severe language impairment. Stefan, the psychologist said, was developmentally equivalent to a 2-year-old.

Nearly everyone directly involved with Stefan — his family, school officials, lawyers — declined to discuss his case in detail. Public records relate much of his story; Stefan, though, will never tell it himself.

A different story

A common narrative propels most stories like the Ferraris’: Ennobled by a child’s handicap, a family beats the odds to obtain justice from a heartless bureaucracy.

The Ferraris are more complicated.

To begin with, they’re rich, or at least used to be. They live in an 11,000-square-foot Buckhead mansion, valued at $8.5 million. They own property on a South Carolina island and in the Nevada desert. Stefan’s father, Marcelo, earned $1.5 million to $2 million a year as an investment banker.

Beyond that, they spent much of Stefan’s childhood engaged in high-stakes litigation. The Ferraris blame Stefan’s autism on vaccinations he received as a toddler, and in 2003, when he was 5, they sought compensation from a federal program for people harmed by vaccines. Their claim remains unresolved. In the meantime, they sued several pharmaceutical companies, alleging the companies should have known of the neurological dangers posed by a preservative used in the vaccines. In 2009, the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

By then, the Ferraris’ family life was fraying.

In October 2007, Stefan’s mother, Carolyn, obtained a protective order against her husband, whom she accused of assaulting her and striking one of Stefan’s two brothers. She filed for divorce a week later. By year’s end, however, she had dropped both the protective order and the divorce action.

The family faced financial strains, as well. In court records, Marcelo Ferrari says he borrowed $1 million from his mother and more than $300,000 from his father. The family’s monthly mortgage payments totaled $29,100. Private-school tuition for Stefan’s brothers, club dues and other expenses ran thousands of dollars a month. But by 2010, Ferrari says, his income had dropped to $833,000, about half his pre-recession earnings.

When Ferrari filed for personal bankruptcy earlier this year, he listed among his personal property the “potential right to reimbursement of legal fees and expenses” from litigation with the school district and the pharmaceutical companies. At the time, he was carrying a balance of $31,000 on his Diners Club card. He owed American Express nearly $124,000.

‘Anachronistic’

Stefan, born in March 1998, was almost 2 when his parents decided he needed behavioral and speech therapy. In 2004, he began special education classes in Atlanta Public Schools.

He was enrolled in the Program for Exceptional Children, which has long failed to meet the needs of disabled students, auditors hired by the school district said last year.

The graduation rate for Atlanta’s special education students is nearly 20 points lower than the statewide average for those children, the auditors found, and the dropout rate more than doubled over four years. Atlanta students with disabilities are far more likely than others in Georgia to spend all or most of their time segregated from their non-disabled peers. Further, the auditors said, many Atlanta principals all but ignore special education classes because they often don’t play into crucial analyses of standardized test scores.

“Many schools do not have a sufficient number of students with disabilities to ‘count’ as a subgroup for Adequate Yearly Progress,” the auditors wrote. “School-based leaders could not answer questions regarding the performance of students receiving special education. Their answers included these: ‘I will have to look it up,’ ‘It’s not as good as they want it to be,’ ‘I can’t remember the exact number but it was not good,’ and ‘We don’t have to worry about the group because there are not enough to count.’”

The program fails to live up to its promises, said Lockridge, who sued to get private school services for his autistic son.

“The one thing they’re really, really good at is telling you how good they are,” he said. “They feed the parents a line of patter, then try to create the convincing illusion they are meeting the requirements” of individual education plans.

The auditors also concluded that the district is too quick to transfer disabled students into special schools for children with behavioral or emotional disorders.

Stefan ended up attending two of those schools — “psychoeducational” facilities operated for Atlanta and other school districts by the Metropolitan Regional Educational Services Agency. State investigations have found poor treatment of students in many such schools and have questioned how effectively they use tax dollars.

David Riley, who led the team that audited Atlanta’s special education program, described psychoeducational schools as “anachronistic.” But they serve a purpose for school districts: when students with disabilities transfer to those schools, the districts are not held accountable for their educational progress.

“Thirty-five years ago we were arguing about whether they had a right to be in school and now it’s whether they can pass a state assessment,” Riley said. “Atlanta should consider bringing all those kids back and being completely responsible for them. The district needs to be accountable for all of its kids.”

‘A be-quiet hit’

At the Marshall School, a psychoeducational facility in East Atlanta, educators drafted a plan for Stefan in the fall of 2008 that called for language services, occupational therapy and physical education, along with “behavioral intervention.” However, a judge later noted, the behavior plan only vaguely described instructional strategies, ending with the notation, “etc.”

The Ferraris quickly detected serious problems.

One day in September, according to court records, Stefan came home from school with fingernail marks on his face and bruises in the shape of hand prints on his arm. The school told his parents Stefan injured himself during a tantrum.

In early October, Carolyn Ferrari complained to school administrators that Stefan’s teacher spent too little time on instruction. She cited his afternoon schedule: Lunch at 12:15, followed at 12:45 by an hour of “quiet time/snack,” then by an unexplained 45-minute block of “sensory,” half an hour of recess and, finally, 15 minutes of “clean up.”

On a website for parents of children with autism, she found an inspiration for figuring out what was happening in Stefan’s classroom: a tiny spy recorder. The device, which retails for as much as $1,399, is barely bigger than a quarter and allows surreptitious, high-quality, day-long recording. When Stefan caught the bus to school on Oct. 21, it was sewn into an inconspicuous spot under his collar.

Stefan came home that afternoon with a rip in the back of his shorts. The next morning, while helping him bathe, Stefan’s father noticed bruises and other marks on his bottom and the backs of his legs. The Ferraris checked the recording.

“Never in a million years would I have thought he was being mistreated,” Carolyn Ferrari said last week. “You don’t want to think anyone would go into that field if they were abusive or didn’t have the best intentions.”

But she and her husband heard Stefan’s teacher, Sherri Jones, speaking throughout the day with other school employees, in earshot of students. At one point, Jones, laughing, read aloud from an advice column in Essence magazine: “The man I am dating is intelligent and he opens the door for me and he puts up with my moodiness, but he has a small penis.”

Later, Jones and her colleagues swapped recipes for dirty martinis and mocked Stefan’s mother.

“She is crazy,” one woman said. “His mama must be two cans short of a six-pack.”

After lunch, when a paraprofessional entered the classroom, Jones was laughing again. Stefan, she said, had eaten pizza out of the trash.

“Finger-lickin’ good,” Jones said.

Jones and other adults grew exasperated with the students later in the day. An unidentified adult told a student, “Sit down, stupid.” And when Stefan launched into a crying tantrum, a woman said to him, “Do you want a hit, a be-quiet hit?”

The next sound — for 18 seconds — was of an adult repeatedly striking Stefan as he continued to cry.

The Ferraris called the police and child protection officials. Jones denied striking Stefan, and investigators said they couldn’t be certain what happened.

The Ferraris removed Stefan from the Marshall School. During meetings over the next several weeks, according to court records, school district officials threatened them with criminal prosecution — for secretly recording Stefan’s classroom and for being parents of a truant.

Legal experts differ on whether the taping broke the law, and the Ferraris initially considered home schooling Stefan.

No charges were ever filed.

A contentious fight

The Ferraris enrolled Stefan in a private school, but contended the school district was obligated to pay for it.

Federal law guarantees every child a “free and appropriate public education.” Public school districts also must provide special services needed by a child with disabilities. If they can’t, they must pay for the child to get the services elsewhere. Atlanta officials said Stefan could receive an adequate education in one of their schools.

It is not clear from public records who made the decision, or why, but school officials proceeded to fight the Ferraris — and fight them aggressively — in a state administrative court.

During a four-day trial in March 2009, the district’s lawyers pressed the idea that if Stefan was abused, it didn’t happen at school. They repeatedly referred to the incident that caused Carolyn Ferrari to seek a protective order against her husband in 2007. And they questioned her under oath about whether her husband had hit one of their sons. She said the boy told her it was accidental.

School officials made no concessions. One testified that the tear in Stefan’s shorts proved nothing. She said Stefan may have had “a growth spurt.”

Judge John B. Gatto ruled in May 2009 that Stefan was “intentionally injured in that classroom by trauma ... and he was verbally abused.” The tear in Stefan’s pants, Gatto said, came from his being lifted off the floor by an adult who beat him. Gatto ordered the school district to pay for Stefan’s education in private schools through age 22.

The agency that runs the Marshall School fired Jones shortly after Gatto ruled, seven months after she was accused of mistreating Stefan.

At the school district, the immediate response was to treat the ruling less as an educational matter than as a public relations challenge. The district hired a consultant to help draft responses to parents who asked about the case and to news coverage. After Atlanta television station WXIA began airing promotional spots for a story about Stefan, Superintendent Hall emailed her communications director: “They intend to milk this one for all it’s worth!”

On Aug. 10, 2009, the district sued Stefan and his family in U.S. District Court, seeking to overturn the administrative judge’s ruling. Judge Richard Story told the district’s lawyers that the protective order against Marcelo Ferrari and the aborted divorce were not relevant. Nevertheless, the district’s lawyers continued portraying Stefan’s father as an abuser.

Marcelo Ferrari “has a history of drunken violence at home” and “has hit his children on a prior occasion,” attorney Sherry Culves wrote last May, citing only the October 2007 incident. Carolyn Ferrari “lied about this,” Culves wrote, “and was impeached by her own prior sworn statement.”

The Ferraris asked the judge to sanction the district’s lawyers for ignoring his admonition over the domestic violence case. Four days later, the district offered to settle the lawsuit.

Both sides agreed to keep the settlement’s terms confidential. However, court documents indicate the district will pay the Ferraris’ legal bills — about $236,000 — in addition to almost $800,000 for its own lawyers, plus other expenses. The district also will place “a certain amount of money,” court records say, into a trust fund for Stefan’s education.

School officials refused to say how much the settlement will cost taxpayers. In 2009 they suggested in court that the Ferraris wanted at least $600,000.

Litigation concerning students with disabilities is “often very contentious in light of the high stakes” for families and school districts, Culves said in an email. The district admits none of the Ferraris’ allegations, she said, and the settlement “should not be viewed as anything other than a compromise to avoid further strain on APS’ resources.”

More acrimony

During the nearly two years that the district pressed its federal case, Marcelo Ferrari lost his job and took a lower-paying position, the Supreme Court threw out the Ferraris’ vaccination lawsuit, the family’s home went into foreclosure, and Marcelo Ferrari went into bankruptcy.

Then, three weeks after settling with the district, Carolyn Ferrari again filed for divorce.

It’s an acrimonious case. Carolyn Ferrari accused her husband of financial improprieties and said he referred to her and their children as “parasites.” Marcelo Ferrari denied his wife’s allegations and said she has made “scandalous, defamatory and scurrilous remarks.”

The Ferraris have put their house up for sale. But Marcelo Ferrari recently told a judge that finding a buyer who would pay enough to satisfy the mortgages is unlikely.

How all of this has affected Stefan is, of course, a mystery. He still goes to school each day and still returns to his mother and brothers. Whatever happens in between is trapped in a world no one else can penetrate.

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An expensive fight

When Stefan Ferrari’s family asked Atlanta Public Schools to pay to educate the autistic child in private schools, the district decided to respond aggressively. It turned out to be expensive:

  • $788,593: Fees the district paid through August 2011 to Jones, Cork & Miller, a Macon law firm, for the Ferrari case. The firm is expected to submit additional bills.
  • $236,523: Fees the district agreed to pay the Ferraris' lawyer, Jonathan Zimring.
  • $38,958: Expense reimbursements to Jones, Cork & Miller, through August 2011.
  • $30,270: Payments to the district's consultants and expert witnesses.
  • $1,094,344: TOTAL

Those expenses do not include money the district agreed to pay into a trust fund set up for Stefan Ferrari. Lawyers for the school district have indicated in court records that the Ferraris sought between $600,000 and $1 million, although those figures are unconfirmed. The district’s lawyers say a federal education privacy law requires that the settlement — even its value — be kept confidential.

Sources: Atlanta Public Schools, U.S. District Court, Georgia Office of State Administrative Hearings

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How we got the story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution examined Georgia’s psychoeducational schools for students with disabilities in a 2009 article about a Hall County boy who hanged himself in a Gainesville school’s isolation room. The article also reported on an Atlanta case involving an autistic boy allegedly beaten at his school.

Legal proceedings involving that boy, Stefan Ferrari, only recently concluded when the Atlanta Public Schools agreed to pay for his education and other services in a private school.

This article is largely based on documents filed in the State Office of Administrative Hearings, where a judge in 2009 sided with the boy’s family, and U.S. District Court, where the school district appealed the state judge’s decision in a lawsuit against Stefan and his family. The agreement settling the case in the family’s favor is confidential, and most people involved in the case declined to be interviewed on the record.

The newspaper also reviewed records from the U.S. Bankruptcy Court and Fulton County Superior Court, as well as school district documents concerning the case and the district’s special education program. Experts on special education and related legal issues discussed the case with a reporter.

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