Justices to hear case of man who says he received poor education

By Chris Dickerson

CHARLESTON - The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case of a Kanawha County man who sued the county school board for not preparing him well enough for life.

The Justices voted 5-0 on Feb. 12 to hear the case of Thomas P. Sturm. Sturm, who now is 21, originally filed his suit in 2006. In the complaint, the Sissonville High School graduate claimed the Kanawha County Board of Education for not preparing him well enough for life as an adult and sought $1 million in punitive damages.

"Is what we have here an individual who operates basically on a third-grade level who has been graduated from high school by the Kanawha County Board of Education?" Justice Brent Benjamin asked Sturm's attorney Barbara Harmon-Schamberger (pictured left), who answered affirmatively during Tuesday's motion hearing.

"Do you contend there is a constitutional right for this child to receive an education?" Benjamin then asked, to which Harmon-Schamberger again answered affirmatively. "That the Board of Education recognized that through its use of IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) which the BOE then turned around and did not follow."

Harmon-Schamberger, who was West Virginia's first female Rhodes Scholar and is a former state Secretary of Education, said the board simply didn't do enough for Sturm.

"The minute his grades dropped below a C-minus there should have been a team meeting, nothing was ever done," she argued. "When they did have team meetings the appropriate personnel was never there. There was supposed to be a positive behavior plan, none was ever put in place.

"The school system doesn't get up every day and deal with every C-minus student and say, 'How can we hide this C-minus performance?' In this case, they did. They affirmatively deprived this child of steps and actions and remediation. They just wanted to get rid of him, just pass him through."

In his original complaint, Sturm said corrective measures weren't taken when his grades dipped below a C-minus average, as was stipulated by a special education program that he was subject to.

Sturm alleged that he has attention deficit hyperactive disorder and his performance wasn't properly monitored as a special education student. He also claimed that he graduated with a third grade-level reading ability.

"I don't think there's any really serious question that the regulations and guidelines and statutes were not followed in this case," Michael T. Clifford, another of Sturm's attorneys, told The Record when the case originally was filed. "The fact that he has a high school diploma when he's functionally illiterate and already on (Supplemental Security Income) speaks for itself."

Sturm also claimed no measures were taken when he was expelled from Dunbar's Ben Franklin Career Center in 2002 for having a knife on his person.

West Virginia Code states that a school is responsible for making sure no one who is functionally illiterate graduates high school.

Clifford said an administrative law judge with the Social Security Administration has declared Sturm functionally illiterate.

Sturm is also seeking damages for injuries and loss of future income.

The case was dismissed by Kanawha Circuit Judge Tod Kaufman, who said Sturm didn't exhaust all of his administrative remedies to the issue. Clifford appealed to the Supreme Court.

Clifford said he is eager to have a chance to argue the case before the Justices.

"We're just elated that they have decided to hear it," he said Wednesday. "I hope they put some guidelines on the board of education about what they have to do with all students because it's certainly, in my view, impermissible to have a person get a high school diploma who can't read or write. He couldn't go to vocational school. By Social Security standards, he was unprepared to do anything."

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