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State appeals court rules Willmar special ed teacher did not violate law

WILLMAR -- In a split ruling, the Minnesota Court of Appeals says that a special education teacher from Willmar did not violate maltreatment rules when she took a child to a time-out room rather than to the bathroom.

The child wet her pants in the time-out room.

A three-judge panel said that the Minnesota Department of Education did not adequately explain its finding that teacher Lisa Van Der Heiden had committed maltreatment by not taking the child to the restroom.

The original complaint about Van Der Heiden's actions grew from a spring 2004 incident in which she chose to address a behavior issue with a child before taking her to the restroom. At the time, the child was in third grade.

The Department of Education originally ruled in 2007 that Van Der Heiden had physically abused the child by denying her access to toilet facilities.

Van Der Heiden requested a hearing, and an administrative law judge recommended that the department's decision be reversed.

Deputy Education Commissioner Chas Anderson, however, issued a final determination of maltreatment. Anderson's ruling was based on an interpretation of Department of Education rules.

When Van Der Heiden appealed, District Judge Michael Thompson in Willmar reversed Anderson's ruling, saying it was not supported by evidence.

The Department of Education appealed to the Court of Appeals, where Thompson's ruling was upheld. One judge dissented.

Judges Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks and Michelle A. Larkin said that the department "did not explain its conclusion that the delay attendant to Van Der Heiden's decision to address (the child)'s behavior before taking (the child) to the bathroom constituted a denial of access to toilet facilities."

The child's behavior, running alone in the hallway, was a "target behavior" which her individual education plan said should be addressed immediately. Because several staff members, including Van Der Heiden, said the child was not prone to wetting accidents, a delay to address her behavior would not have been considered unreasonable, the judges said.

In a decision written by Larkin, the judges said the department's decision did not give enough weight to the need to address the child's behavior, as spelled out in her education plan.

The majority opinion said that the department rejected the administrative law judge's conclusions without explanation. This suggests, Larkin wrote, that "the agency exercised its will rather than its judgment and was therefore arbitrary and capricious."

Judge Matthew E. Johnson wrote a two-page dissent, saying that he would have sided with the Department of Education.

No one disputes that the child told Van Der Heiden she needed to use the toilet, that Van Der Heiden did not take her to the toilet, or that the child then wet her pants, Johnson wrote.

"The conclusion that Van Der Heiden violated the rule is the product of a straightforward application of the law to essentially undisputed facts," he wrote. "By overruling the department's interpretation of its own rule, this court's opinion is in tension with the doctrine of separation of powers."

Van Der Heiden and Willmar school officials have been the target of a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging that Van Der Heiden used physical restraining holds and a seclusion room to excess with some students. That case was dismissed in its first hearing and is currently under appeal.

She has been the subject of an investigation by the Department of Education's division of special education compliance and assistance, which found numerous violations of state and federal regulations in her classroom. The state Board of Teaching has been monitoring her performance as a result of the investigations.