Public school officials offered a California mother $86,000 to settle complaints about the previous treatment of her autistic, mute and diabetic son , to move him to a private school and to keep her from filing any further complaints about his care.
Heather Houston alleges that her 21-year-old son, David Swanson, was force-fed and discriminated against at school. She previously filed a complaint with the office of civil rights and says she plans to sue, but she still wants him to attend class because he's entitled to free public education until he turns 22.
David's education plan, which includes learning to write his name on a piece of paper, may not seem like much, but he has a right to it, Houston says.
"The law says he's allowed access to education," Houston told ABCNews.com. "I don't want their money. I never wanted their money."
Houston says she received the settlement offer two weeks after Yuba City, Calif., school officials turned David away on Aug. 15, the first day of classes.
"I don't get it, because he's a wonderful child," said Annette Armstrong, the private duty nurse who accompanied David to school that day to monitor his diabetes. "David had a desk in there. We were where we were supposed to be."
According to the federal Department of Education, public school districts are required to provide free appropriate public education, or FAPE, to students with disabilities until they age out of the system. If a district can't handle a particular students' needs, it can refer that student elsewhere, but the district is still responsible for paying for the alternative education, ensuring that it is appropriate for the student and providing transportation.
The unsigned settlement offer letter, obtained by ABCNews.com and dated Aug. 27, offers Houston $86,000 in exchange for waiving David's right to attend public school, for which he is eligible in California until he turns 22 in spring 2014. The letter also explains that if Houston accepts the money, she must drop her complaints against the school district and county superintendent's office and not file any new complaints or lawsuits against the school district or the county superintendent's office.
Yuba City School District's lawyer, Kim Bogard, acknowledged the existence of the settlement agreement offer, but would not comment on specifics regarding David's care or education.
Armstrong has cared for David for five years, helping him communicate with his iPad, monitoring his diabetes and administering his insulin as a nurse employed by the school district, Houston said. But Armstrong and Houston said the district found a reason to fire her after she complained about a teacher force-feeding David last year.
"They don't like me because they know I'm going to tell the truth," Armstrong said.
So Houston hired Armstrong as a private nurse for David because she was so good at caring for him and understanding when he was uncomfortable. Since David can't speak, Armstrong knows what's ailing him when he hums, puts his fingers in his ears or hops up and down.
The trouble began last school year, Armstrong explained. Even though helping David eat is one of her nursing duties, she says one teacher decided to teach David table manners. David didn't respond well because the teacher was forcing him to eat with a metal fork instead of a plastic one, Armstrong said. But they say David's autism renders him extra sensitive to metal, and he becomes agitated by the way metal forks feel against his teeth.
When Armstrong said she tried to intervene, the teacher ignored her, she said. When David spit the food out, she says the teacher pushed it back into his mouth and he eventually vomited.
"She would push his head in the bowl, make him spit in the bowl and stir it up and make him eat it," Armstrong said. "Her methods are bizarre."
Armstrong says she complained to her supervisor, and David stopped eating with the teacher.
But when a review of David's education plan came up and Houston wanted Armstrong present, Armstrong believes she was punished for her complaint. Armstrong said her bosses told her to call in sick that day.
She later learned that his education plan included learning hygiene, how to write down his name and phone number in case he ever gets lost, and how to communicate more words with his iPad, Armstrong said. There was nothing in it about table manners.
Armstrong said she learned more about the school's attitude toward David when an administrator expressed doubts that David could actually express himself with the iPad at all.
"He knows what we're saying right now," Armstrong said, speaking to ABCNews.com on the phone in the same room as David while his brother looked after him. "He's just not verbal."
Someone at the school eventually broke David's iPad by forcing him to leave it out in the rain for fear that he was bringing a recording device into the classroom, Houston said.
"They don't like her and they don't like him," Armstrong said.
The incident last year that most upset Armstrong, however, was a simple class party in which the teacher brought cupcakes for every student in the class.
Every student, that is, except for David, she says.
Not realizing that the teacher hadn't brought him one, Armstrong asked David if he wanted a cupcake, and he answered "yes" on the iPad. The teacher then said she wouldn't give David one because of his diabetes. Armstrong says she reminded the teacher that all she had to do was adjust his insulin levels, and he could eat it.
"I can even tell you what color he'll choose: red. If there's no red, orange," Armstrong said. "I always have tried to … advocate for David and just try to get through the day. Why do we have to make the kid so upset that he pukes on his shoes?"
The district had sent Houston a previous settlement agreement letter in June for $50,000, which she told ABCNews.com she rejected before she sent David back to school this month.
Bogard said Houston's lawyer didn't reject the first settlement agreement as Houston claims. Instead, Houston's lawyer responded with a counter offer asking for more money.
Houston said she did not authorize her lawyer to submit a counter offer. The lawyer, who has since quit, sent the district an itemized list to explain why the $50,000 wouldn't cover the costs of David's education, Houston said. She said it was a rejection, not a counter offer.
"Any offer made was part of ongoing confidential settlement discussions in which David's counsel fully participated," Bogard said in a prepared statement on behalf of the district. "The settlement offers that Ms. Houston refers to are no longer valid."
Bogard said the district denied any wrongdoing, but said she couldn't comment further, citing pending litigation.
- Heather Houston