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The way Lincoln Public Schools officials handled the education of a 10-year-old autistic boy violated federal special education laws and the student's constitutional rights, a lawsuit alleges.

LPS refused to change the boy's education plan despite the recommendation of an expert from Johns Hopkins University, the lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Omaha alleges.

LPS ignored evidence from the doctors at Johns Hopkins that the boy's behavior was better when he stayed in the classroom rather than being moved to an isolation room, according to the lawsuit.

"The heart of the matter is that LPS fell very short in fulfilling their legal responsibilities to Luke, and his academic progress and social and behavioral development suffered substantially as a result," said Mark Laughlin, an Omaha attorney representing the family.

In the lawsuit, the parents are identified only by the initials M.M. and C.M. and their son by the initials L.M.

But Laughlin identified the family as Matt and Christine McNair and their son Luke.

The McNairs, who pulled Luke out of LPS and enrolled him at a private school in Roca called Prairie Hill, are asking LPS to pay for past and future tuition.

They also are seeking reimbursement for other expenses caused by LPS' alleged failure to comply with special education law.

A Nebraska Department of Education hearing officer found in favor of LPS. The lawsuit alleges the hearing officer's findings were wrong.

Gregory Perry, the attorney representing LPS, said the allegations in the lawsuit aren't true but declined to comment further.

"The general policy of the district is to comply with the special education laws, which are applicable to some of the issues here (such as) placing the child in the least restrictive environment," he said.

Luke was diagnosed with autism in February 2002, when he was 2.

He enrolled in an early childhood special education program at LPS in 2003, but his parents removed him because he wasn't showing any progress and enrolled him in another program. The same thing happened in kindergarten at Sheridan Elementary School, according to the lawsuit.

He returned to Sheridan for first grade, which went well. But his behavior and academic performance deteriorated in the second and third grades, the lawsuit contends.

"By the end of second grade, he was in the classroom with his peers very little, and his aggressions and self-injurious behaviors were at an all-time high," the lawsuit said.

When LPS considered Luke's behavior inappropriate, teachers removed him from the regular classroom and put him in an isolation room to calm down.

By the end of third grade, Luke's behavior had deteriorated so drastically that his parents considered making him a ward of the state.

Instead, the McNairs placed him at the Kennedy Krieger Institute affiliated with Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore, Md., from April through September 2009.

Doctors there concluded that Luke actually liked going to the isolation room and so his aggressive behavior in the classroom increased so he would be sent there.

"Once (Luke) realized he could not manipulate his caregivers with aggressive behaviors, (his) aggressive behavior plummeted," the lawsuit said.

However, LPS refused to implement the plan developed at the Maryland institute, citing unspecified research, the lawsuit alleges.

Instead, LPS proposed keeping Luke in the classroom for all but an hour a day.

The lawsuit also alleges LPS excluded the family from "meaningful" participation in developing Luke's educational plan.

The plan LPS came up with was no better than its previous plans, the lawsuit said.

Prairie Hill is using the plan developed at the Maryland institute. Luke's behavior and academic performance have improved, and he spends the majority of the day in the regular classroom, according to the lawsuit.

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com

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Education reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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