Parents file complaint about accessibility at Holland school

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HOLLAND, Mich. (WOOD) — A Holland family has filed federal complaints against Black River Public Schools, claiming it hasn’t done enough to accommodate their 12-year-old daughter, who has a bone disease that makes it difficult to get around.

The complaints raise the question: How far does a public school have to go for students with disabilities?

Both sides say it might come down to the price of a new elevator.

“We’re doing it for not only her but for any other kids who come after her that might have a similar issue,” said Amy Dykema, whose daughter, Katie, is a seventh-grader at Black River.

She and her husband, Brian, explained Katie was born with a form of bone dysplasia.

“Her bones, her growth plates, grow a little bit abnormally, so it affects all of the bones in her body,” her father said.

Katie Dykema. (Sept. 19, 2016)
Katie Dykema. (Sept. 19, 2016)

While Katie can walk on her own and even play outside, it’s painful and fatiguing, her parents said.

“We want her to be able to go to school,” her mom said. “We want to drop her off with confidence every day that she is able to get to class safely, in a healthy way.”

That, they said, is what led to a fight that’s gone on for a year at Black River, a K-12 school chartered by Grand Valley State University.

Students walk more than 450 feet outside from Black River’s main building to the building out back for lunch and orchestra. Last year, school workers pushed Katie in a wheelchair — but that, her parents said, was embarrassing, especially since she doesn’t need one.

“She wants to blend in,” her mom said. “She just wants to go to school. She’s a typical seventh-grade girl.”

The family said it has hired an attorney and that it reluctantly filed complaints with the Department of Education Office of Civil rights and an Americans with Disabilities Act complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice.

Her parents said there’s a shortcut — maybe 75 feet, instead of 450 feet — but that would require installing an elevator in the back building.

They said they’ve gotten their own estimates for how much that would cost: about $26,000. But school leaders said the family’s elevator estimate is low. They peg the cost closer to $80,000.

“A lift would be great,” Shannon Brunink, Black River’s Head of School said. “It’s very expensive. We have a very tight budget.”

He said the school has worked to accommodate children with disabilities. He said they’ve provided a golf cart for staff members to drive Katie between buildings, though he realizes it’s not a perfect solution.

Brunink also said the state has repeatedly approved the school for accessibility.

“We’re looking for ways to help the student get to class on time, help all students get to class on time, in a dignified manner,” he said. “The frustrating part is there’s no clear answer that satisfies everyone.”

On Monday, he said he would consider the family’s proposal for a lift, if it raised the money.

The family has started a GoFundMe account to pay for the lift.

“It’s not just a Katie solution here,” her father said. “We’re talking about a school that services kids as its mission. It’s what they do, and kids come in all shapes and sizes and capabilities.”

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