GEORGE COUNTY, Miss. (WKRG) – George County Schools has paid over $341,489 in legal fees in the past five years as it continues to defend three open lawsuits.

The amount includes payments made from July 2018 through April 2023. Public records only list the total amounts paid to all law firms in each year, not the amounts paid to each individual attorney. In addition to the open lawsuits, the district keeps a school board attorney on retainer for day-to-day procedural duties and advising.

The amount could swell to over $500,000, depending on a federal judge’s order.

Special education lawsuit

The bulk of the fees paid appear to come from a federal lawsuit in which the appeals judge ruled the district failed to accommodate a special needs student.

Court filings show GCSD has already paid at least $133,949 to its own attorneys to defend the case, even as it admitted in court it could not provide the student with an adequate education required by law and failed to turn over student records. The plaintiff said the amount appears to account for up to $475-per-hour billed by a GCSD attorney, including commute time between Jackson and Lucedale.

A ruling by U.S. District Court Judge Taylor McNeel is forthcoming over whether the district (GCSD) will be responsible for paying any or all of the plaintiffs’ legal fees, so far totaling $160,509.

The amounts from both sides mostly include only work performed in 2018 and 2019 when the family’s case was brought before a Mississippi Department of Education hearing officer. Court filings do not include invoices showing how much the district has paid its attorneys to defend the appeal of the case to federal court from Aug. 2019 until present.

The complaint was filed by the parents of a 12-year-old student with severe autism in Aug. 2018. Since pre-kindergarten, he attended full school days, with only about one hour per day spent in the special education classroom. In March 2017, his individualized educational plan (IEP) was changed and he moved to the special education class full-time at L.C. Hatcher Elementary School.

His teacher testified that the student, referred to as JR, was “very happy, eager to work, and never gave his teacher problems”. In Sept. 2017, the student began to exhibit aggressive behaviors like striking teachers and other students. A psychometrist testified JR, who is largely nonverbal, mostly seemed to act out in situations he found stressful and did not have the words to express himself.

His teacher testified that by Oct. 2017, she was on constant alert for any violent outbursts from JR and spent more time focusing on trying to mitigate his behavior than instruction. His IEP committee decided to enroll him in half-days at the school.

In late October, the IEP committee again changed the plan to allow JR to attend class for one hour, four days per week. In Nov. 2017, his parents began coordinating sessions with an assistant behavior analyst from a private school in Mobile to work on behavior and communication.

In Feb. 2018, JR’s mother began looking for an advocate to represent them to GCSD. The district became aware of her intention soon after. The mother believed it was then in retaliation that Child Protection Services received a complaint in March of JR showing aggressive behavior towards an older sibling.

In a May 2018 IEP meeting, the district declined to adopt recommendations from the private consultant such as increasing speech and occupational services and providing a behavior analyst and individual aid. The complaint and request for a due process hearing was filed in Aug. 2018. Since then, the family has enrolled and transported JR to a private school for special needs students on their own accord.

In May 2019, state hearing officer James McCafferty ruled the district did not violate the student’s right to Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Over the course of the hearing, the district and family agreed JR would best be served by a “special school,” but did not agree on which one. The family appealed the state’s decision to the U.S. District Court for Southern Mississippi in Aug. 2019.

In Sept. 2022, Judge McNeel issued his decision overturning part of the state’s decision, finding that the school did not provide the boy with an adequate education after he was withdrawn from physical education and allowed in school for one hour per day. The hour was mostly spent in the assistant principal’s office, away from other students.

“Some days he did not even remove his backpack. Much of the focus was on monitoring and redirecting negative behaviors, not on academics. In fact, it appears the motivation was to focus on resolving the negative behaviors and, once accomplished, J.R. could be transitioned back to longer days for academic instruction. But this never happened,” McNeel wrote.

GCSD argues it should not be responsible for paying the family’s attorney fees because the student does not meet the legal definition of a “prevailing party,” is no longer enrolled in the district and the attorney fees are “not reasonable.” The last filing in federal court was processed in January. The judge could issue his ruling at any time.

Agricola Elementary lawsuit

A second lawsuit, filed Dec. 2019, is being heard in the George County Circuit Court.

The complaint is by a mother of a girl who says she was sexually assaulted at Agricola Elementary in Aug. 2017. It says the student was dropped off for school in the car rider line and was followed into the school bathroom by an unaccompanied adult male.

The complaint argues school employees were improperly trained and failed to care for and protect the girl in accordance with district policy and she suffered “severe emotional distress and mental anguish” due to their negligence.

The district denied all claims. Its motion for summary judgment was heard by Judge Calvin Taylor on May 22. A ruling has not been issued. 

Former superintendent lawsuit

A federal lawsuit from former superintendent Pam Touchard was first filed in May 2021. She alleges the district’s board of education discriminated against her by denying her any employment opportunity after her term as superintendent ended and other retaliatory measures after she reported staff-sanctioned cheating to the state in 2019.

GCSD filed a motion for summary judgment on May 17. It cites statements Touchard made in her sworn deposition that the district argues disproves her original claim. The district says she only applied to one job with the district after leaving office and was never banned from school events.

Touchard’s response to the motion is due by June 8. If the motion is denied, the case is set to be argued in a jury trial in November after an August settlement conference between both sides.

It is unclear what fund all of the attorney fees are paid out of, whether the general fund, insurance policy or other account. Public records show the funds coming from “district maintenance” and “special projects” accounts in the GCSD budget.

Full Touchard deposition and GCSD motion for summary judgement:

GCSD attorney fees by year: