Settlement Opens Church Preschool to Special Needs Kids

By: Matt Chaney

A group of parents has reached a settlement with a preschool in Charlotte that they said discriminated against their children because of disabilities, the families’ attorneys report.

Calvary Child Development Center and a group of five families came to an agreement Oct. 3 to dismiss the families’ lawsuit in exchange for the school adopting policy changes to better accommodate children of all ability levels.

The case dates back to 2016 when two families claimed that the school expelled their children over medical conditions. Shortly thereafter, others stepped forward, saying they had similar experiences, dating back to the 1980s, all saying they were made to feel unwelcome by the school because of a child’s disability, or perceived disability.

“The case centered on claims by the Plaintiff families that the Defendants had failed to provide reasonable accommodations for Plaintiff families’ five children who claimed special needs,” the two sides said in a joint statement, “and on the need for accommodations for children with special needs and disabilities in the private church education setting in North Carolina.”

In all, five families took part in the lawsuit according to a complaint filed by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Josh Van Kampen, Sean Herrmann, and Kevin Murphy of Van Kampen Law in Charlotte. However, 10 others came forward with similar allegations, but were unable to file claims because the statute of limitations for doing so had passed.

The plaintiffs argued in the complaint that the school violated the North Carolina Persons with Disabilities Protection Act, as the school qualified as a public accommodation even though it is a private institution.

As part of the agreement, the school said in a news release that it would add a statement to its admission policy explicitly allowing for the admittance of children with special needs. In addition, the school said it will hire a registered nurse, train staff to work with special needs students, and allow third-party medical professionals access to work with those students during school.

The school’s director, Pat Collins, was also a party to the lawsuit. Both Collins and the church were represented by Mel Garofalo and Rob Wilson of Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo in Charlotte.

Their attorneys said in the joint statement that they regret the plaintiffs’ decision to pursue litigation while steadfastly denying their allegations. But they also said they see the litigation and settlement as an opportunity to improve.

“Calvary Child Development Center takes seriously the development, education, care and safety of the hundreds of children entrusted to it each year and acknowledges the importance of continually improving policies to better serve children with disabilities and special needs in its community,” the defendants said in the statement.

It is unclear whether there was a financial component to the settlement. The PWDPA says that any relief granted by a court “shall be limited to declaratory and injunctive relief,” meaning that, had the plaintiffs prevailed on the PWDPA claims, no financial awards could have been ordered beyond attorneys’ fees. But the joint statement alludes to the reforms being part of an “overall” settlement, and the plaintiffs also brought common law and other statutory claims, which could have provided for monetary damages.

In a statement, the lawyers from both sides said they were pleased with the results.

“The Plaintiff families’ primary objective was to bring improvements to Calvary Child Development Center that would further open doors to children with special needs and disabilities in the community,” they said. “Hedrick Gardner and Van Kampen Law are very proud to have represented their respectíve clients in this matter and for being part of a settlement that brings positive changes for families of children with special needs and disabilities.”