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Henrico family and school system in legal battle over education for son with autism

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- For a few months now, Tonie Cain-Matthews has been driving from Eastern Henrico to the West End and back twice a day.

"This little drive to the West End is very overwhelming,” Matthews said while driving. “It'll take about an hour and a half of my day."

Her 15-year-old son Gregory has autism, and since late January he has attended the Faison Center for Autism.

"Junior never talks. He never initiates a conversation," Cain-Matthews said.

Cain-Matthews said in just a short period of time, Junior, as they call him, has made big strides, like speaking on his own without being prompted to repeat her words.

Tonie and Junior

"The only thing I said to him, we're going to your brother's basketball game, what are you going to do?  He said, ‘oh I'm coming,’" Cain-Matthews said.  "We were like wow... just one month."

Faison is currently allowing Junior to attend the school free of charge. But soon, they'll require payment.

"I'm going to keep fighting for Junior, I'm not going to give up," Cain-Matthews said.

The family wants Henrico to pick up the tab because they said the county is incapable of providing Junior the education and attention he requires.

But, the school system disagrees, which has led to a court battle over the young man's future.

Back in December, a state hearing officer sided with the family. But, at a second hearing, a different officer sided with the school division.

Now, the county is appealing the first decision.

"To this day, his education is still not getting paid for," Cain-Matthews said.

The family has hired an attorney, and they have teamed up with Kandise Lucas, a controversial advocate for disabled students.

"A lot of times we're brought in because parents feel like they have no voice," Lucas said.

Lucas has been a vocal critic of Henrico Schools, but in the past her tactics have gotten her in trouble with the law. Just last week, she was found guilty in Henrico General District Court of trespassing on school property.

Tonie and Junior

As advocates like Lucas have gotten more involved in cases like the Matthews' case, Virginia school divisions have started spending big money on outside attorneys.

"I think it's egregious... those are resources that as a taxpayer, I would want to see invested in our children, not in litigation fees," Lucas said.

Through Freedom of Information act requests, CBS 6 has learned that so far in Fiscal Year 2018, Henrico has paid the Reed Smith Law Firm more than $727,000 to assist with their special education caseload.

Last year, Chesterfield County paid the same firm nearly $300,000.

We don't have the data for the City of Richmond because they wanted to charge us more than $350 for that information.

Retired school Superintendent Dr. Stewart Roberson said in the vast majority of cases involving special education students, parents and school systems work things out before going to court.

But, he said paying a law firm to help reach a consensus is not necessarily a bad thing.

"Often times that's the right expenditure, it's right to spend that money," Roberson said. "Though the school system, I know, wishes more than anything it was not at this point in this process they determined though it's the right thing to do because of a variety of factors I'm sure they've considered."

And, he said that's how the system was designed.

"The special education law and the American system of jurors’ prudence are designed to say this is how it should be done," Roberson said.

In an email, Jason Ballum with the Reed Smith Law Firm told CBS 6 that the number of school-related due process filings handled by the firm has nearly doubled in the last two years.

Junior

He also pointed out that the state has a special education mediation system where disputes between parents and school divisions can be resolved at little to no cost to either.

But, Lucas said the state mediation system does not work in the best interest of parents.

"A lot of our issues could be resolved if school divisions and parents could come together and say, ok I made a mistake, let's go ahead and move past it," Lucas said.

The Matthews' family said all children like Junior deserve a better solution because they can't help the challenges they face.

"Of course, your heart goes out to kids with special needs because you can't help you was born into this world like this," Cain-Matthews said. "Give these children a chance."

In an attempt to rectify this issue, Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas has included a new county attorney position in his budget that would focus solely on matters related to special education.

The school system declined an on-camera interview pending the outcome of their appeal in the Matthews' case.

However, spokesperson Andy Jenks did tell us the following in an email:

"We absolutely believe there is a better way to resolve these issues. We want folks to know they can meet with us, sit down at their convenience, and work together to do what’s best for children. In many cases, mediation is successful. If a parent or advocate refuses to consider mediation and elects to go to a hearing, then the time and public expense of resolving issues increase dramatically."

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