I’m a bit short of time this morning, so couldn’t give this story the time it deserved. The following is a cut and paste job from Fox Houston:
Dreams brought Kenneth Chibuogwu to America, and, in time, determination brought many of those aspirations within reach.
“I worked hard. I came to this country with nothing,” says Kenneth.
It is a country this father and husband have deeply embraced, along with its core convictions.
“If you don’t stand up for something, you’ll fall for anything,” he says.
And what could be more worthy of battle than his first-born son, Chapuka, “Chuka” for short, a child who will spend each and every day of his life challenged with autism?
“This child was a gift from God,” insists Kenneth.
Guaranteed by federal law a “free and appropriate education” for their son, Kenneth and wife Neka hoped the Alief School District would prove an able partner in helping Chuka reach his potential.
It didn’t happen.
“When I went there I saw things no mother would want to see,” says Neka of her visits to Chuka’s middle school.
“My wife went to observe, found him squashed in the corner and nobody cared,” says Kenneth.
“There was nothing I could do but cry because I was so shocked that such a thing could go on in this country,” added Neka of the repeated conferences with Alief administrators, ending in stalemate.
In Texas, when parents and educators can’t agree on whether a school district is giving a disabled student all that the law demands, the state offers a procedure called “due process,” where a sort of education judge listens to all the evidence and decides the issue.
In May of 2007, using much of their life savings, Chuka’s parents filed their case.
Instead of seeking compromise, Alief launched a full-blown legal counterattack, alleging the case was “improper” and that the Chibuogwus “harassed” district employees during meetings.
“Nobody in this household harassed the school district. I feel that they harassed us,” insists Neka.
“These people had been railroaded, these people had been maligned,” says special education advocate Jimmy Kilpatrick, who represented Chuka and his parents.
Drained and discouraged, Kenneth and Eka dropped their due process case, and Chuka never returned to class.
The conflict could have ended there, but Alief Superintendent Louis Stoerner and then board president Sarah Winkler had other plans.
The District sued the economically distressed parents of a special needs child for every penny of the district’s legal expenses, an amount at the time approaching $170,000 dollars, and now estimated at close to a quarter million.
“What I feel is that they are trying to bully me for asking for a chance for my son's life,” says Kenneth.
Alief taxpayer and watch dog Bob Hermann sees the lawsuit as senseless and mean-spirited.
“I don’t know why we would spend taxpayers' money to try and punish somebody who doesn’t have the money and are probably going to win at the end of the day anyway,” says Hermann.
Those who represent special needs families suspect a larger, more sinister scheme.
“What they are trying to do is send a chill down parents' spines about advocating for their children,” says Louis Geigerman, president of the Texas Organization of Parents, Attorneys and Advocates.
“Let's set some examples, let's hang a few of them at high noon right out here in the middle of the town square and show you what we do to people who want to advocate for their children,” adds Kilpatrick.
“If I don’t fight them, you know they are going to do it to other parents,” says Kenneth Chibuogwu.
This past April, after three long and expensive years of legal warfare, a federal judge here in Houston issued his ruling. Alief I.S.D. was wrong and had no right under the law to collect legal expenses from Chuka’s parents.
Instead of accepting the ruling, superintendent Stoerner, and, apparently, the Alief School board have chosen to risk even more taxpayer dollars and appeal the ruling to the 5th Circuit.
At a board meeting, by phone and by e-mail, Fox 26 News has repeatedly asked the Alief decision makers “why,” and has yet to receive an answer.
A district spokeswoman promised comment after the appeals court rules.
“We’ve almost lost everything trying to keep this up,” says Neka.
“What basically they are trying to do is run me and my family onto the street,” says Kenneth.
While school expenses are generally available for public inspection, Alief has attempted to block our open records request.
FOX 26 News has, however, obtained invoices which show the district’s taxpayers have compensated Erik Nikols and his law firm Rogers, Morris and Grover as much as $12,000 in a single month for waging the three-and-a-half year courthouse campaign against the Chibuogwus.
The meter, presumably, is still running.
“I know a lot of people have gained from this, a lot of people have been enriched by this,” says Neka.
As for Chuka, he’s now fourteen, attends no school and for five years hasn’t received a single minute of the free and appropriate public education that is his right.
Their child, his parents insist, has been thoroughly left behind.