The US attorney’s office is investigating the Park School, a prestigious private academy in Brookline, after a family alleged their child was denied admission solely because she is disabled.
Five-year-old Harper Oates was born with a spinal cord injury that left her a quadriplegic. But when doctors tested Harper’s development as a toddler, they found her limitations were mainly confined to mobility. Cognitively, Harper was found to be one to two years ahead of her peers.
As a result, Dawn and Justin Oates expected their youngest child would go to the Park School, a 129-year-old institution with students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, just like her 6-year-old twin siblings. Just like her father did before them. But school officials denied Harper a spot early last year, calling the decision “extremely difficult.”
“The school engaged in an open, good-faith discussion with the Oates family about how Harper could thrive and have an enriching and fulfilling academic experience,” the school said in a statement to The Boston Globe. “After much careful and thoughtful deliberation, however, serious concerns remained that the Park School could not meet Harper’s educational needs.
“While we appreciated that the family offered to provide certain accommodations, the school concluded that Harper required additional accommodations that would have fundamentally altered our educational model.”
The US attorney’s office contacted the Oates family last fall after learning from a third party that the school allegedly violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Christina DiIorio-Sterling, a spokeswoman for the US attorney’s office, confirmed that her agency has opened an investigation.
The Oates family said they wanted to enroll Harper in the Park School to give her — a child with a catastrophic injury — the best possible opportunities.
“I’m not looking for easy, I’m just looking for possible,” Dawn Oates said. “This kid needs to be in the community. . . . She needs to do things that a typical kid would do.”
Dawn Oates said the family reminded Park School staff more than once that Harper didn’t need the school to provide special accommodations.
The family pays for a full-time aide, who provides Harper with one-on-one assistance at all times, including while she’s at school. They maintain there were flaws in the admissions process at the Park School and say they were encouraged to take advantage of public school services in Brookline.
In its statement to the Globe, Park School officials denied discriminating “on the basis of disabilities or any other status protected by applicable law in the administration of its educational, admissions, and other policies and programs.”
Private schools are covered under Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits outright discrimination on the basis of disability, according to Stan Eichner, director of litigation at the Disability Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates on behalf of Massachusetts residents with disabilities. Though private schools are allowed to set up programs focusing on specific needs or disabilities, they can’t “categorically exclude a student because the person would require extra staffing or a modification of their rules or policies,” he said.
Instead, Eichner said a school would need to show that such a modification was an “undue burden or would fundamentally alter how they operate.”
“You can’t say, ‘You have a disability, we’re not going to let you in,’ ” Eichner said. “In discrimination law generally, it’s rare that people say some overt statement like that. . . . Instead, they might say something like, ‘You didn’t qualify.’ ”
Dawn Oates, who served on the school’s diversity committee, said she made clear at the time that she intended to enroll Harper when her daughter was old enough for prekindergarten.
In a letter to the family sent early last year, the former head of school, Michael Robinson, stood by the decision. He said the school concluded Harper would benefit from an educational environment that included occupational and physical therapists as well as speech-language pathologists “who are available to provide services in conjunction with special-education teachers familiar with the adaptive technology that Harper will need to be able to use independently.”
“These type of services, curricula, and individuals are not available at Park, as our teachers are not trained to use the types of personal, adaptive technologies that Harper would require throughout the school day. Our offering such a curriculum would require the school to fundamentally alter our educational model, an adjustment we are not required or equipped to make.”
The family applied to another Brookline private school, Dexter Southfield, less than a mile away from the Park School. The acceptance letter for Harper came speedily. A letter from Sarah Powers, director of admissions at Dexter Southfield, praised Harper.
“The Admissions Committee was impressed by Harper’s academic readiness and personal qualities and believes Harper will contribute positively to the Dexter Southfield community,” the letter read.
At the bottom was a handwritten note from Powers, “You have a smart, endearing little girl. Thank you for sharing Harper with us!”
At the end of the 2016 school year, the family pulled their two other children out of the Park School. Robinson stepped down as head of school and was replaced by Cynthia Harmon.
The Oates family said they set up a meeting with Harmon in August 2016. They didn’t want any other family to go through what they did, Dawn Oates said.
Initially, rather than pursuing legal action, the family made several specific requests, modeled on the settlement of a similar case involving a private Milwaukee school found to have violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The Oates family asked Harmon to add a disability nondiscrimination policy to the school’s website, to make the playground accessible to students with disabilities, and to dismiss the school’s admissions director. The Oateses said Harmon told them she would be in touch within a month. They said they filed a complaint online with the Department of Education when they said she didn’t respond by that deadline.
Dawn Oates said the US attorney’s office reached out to the family shortly after that.
Dr. Rebecca Horne, a Brookline pediatrician, began taking care of Harper when she was 10 months old. She agreed with the family’s decision to take Harper to another school.
“People may look at her and see just a kid in a wheelchair who is very limited from a physical standpoint,” Horne said. “Of course she needs accommodations to meet her physical and medical needs, but she also needs to be in a classroom setting with peers and teachers who will stimulate and challenge her cognitive and communication abilities.”
Harper lived at a hospital for the first six months of her life. Horne remembers when the little girl started playing pretend. Harper couldn’t pick up the toys herself, but she could narrate the story she imagined and direct someone else who was playing with her.
“Before she was speaking, she used her eyes to indicate choices,” Horne said. “She’s always been very personable and interactive, even before she could talk.”