Coal is a black, solid mineral used as fuel. When it burns it pollutes the air and leaves coal dust everywhere. It is a cheap fuel that is mined by those too poor to do anything else- a fitting metaphor for the purposeful destruction of an entire family burned by Delaware to fuel its war against special education and parents’ rights. Ronnie and Suzanne Coale were of modest means, scraped to get by, and were products of the Delaware school system. Both had untreated learning disabilities. Ronnie could barely read and made a living by painting bridges. Suzanne did a variety of temp jobs when I knew them. She loved to decorate her house, tend her garden, and learn about special education. Ronnie had magic hands and could build anything. Together they were a handsome couple that tried their best. They had two sons, Kevin and Alex. This sweet and endearing family ignited a fire in Delaware in 1994 that consumed the next 6 years of their lives and mine. They were like millions of American families- regular folks with hopes and dreams and very little else. They were smart. They loved their children. They were good parents. They worked hard. Their children inherited their disabilities. They came to New Jersey to bring me back to Delaware to help fight a corrupt system. And Delaware viewed them as disposable fuel to be processed through its due process system and incinerated in its systematic fire. It purified unclean citizens with disabled children in Delaware’s U.S. District Court, its Family Court, and its due process panel. And according to plan, each member of the Coale family was turned to dust.
The first hearing was for Kevin in 1994. The parents wanted additional testing, compensatory education, and more IEP services. It was an open hearing against the Brandywine School District. Many parents, local politicians, and school administrators came each day to observe. No parent had won a hearing in anybody’s memory so that a good deal of excitement was generated when the decision came out. Ronnie and Suzanne won Kevin’s case and became instant celebrities. They permitted their house to serve as one of the places that parents could go to find help. With their increasing visibility came increasing problems from Brandywine and the State. The testing that was ordered was finally completed. But nobody on the IEP team had ever written an individualized IEP, everything coming out of their computer software programs. Kevin could not read. He had additional problems as a result of his broad-based language disorder. They refused to teach him phonics. Another year went by after the decision and he still didn’t have an IEP that was agreed to. Since Delaware had no placement options specializing in the needs of dyslexic children, he was a year older but still reading at a second grade level. He was an intelligent boy who loved the outdoors and the guitar. Oh! How he loved his guitar. His parents were desperate to help him because as the months passed he became withdrawn, expressing hopelessness about his future. He hated school and did not want to go. Suzanne found a respected residential school for dyslexics that accepted him. The only problem was that there was no money to pay for it. Unlike families who can pay for unilateral placement and then seek reimbursement, the Coales did the only thing they could. They filed for a second due process hearing seeking residential placement.
The second hearing for Kevin had a different hearing panel from the first. By the time it was scheduled, there was an all-out State effort to prevent me from representing parents. Prior to opening statements, the hearing room was packed, with double rows of seats surrounding the hearing table. It was whispered that I was going to be arrested that day for the unauthorized practice of law. As this was a hearing for residential placement, the State of Delaware was a party because it was the State who paid for residential placements in Delaware. (It also selected the hearing panel!) It argued that I could not represent parents, as did the Brandywine attorney. They emphasized that I was guilty of the unauthorized practice of law according to Delaware law and should be punished. Ronnie and Suzanne were terrified because they thought I was actually going to be arrested, based upon what was being threatened by the State and the school district. Nonetheless, the hearing panel decided to proceed with the hearing. After four days on the parents’ case, we rested and moved for a directed verdict. We believed that we had proven our case and that Brandywine did not have a leg to stand on. My motion was granted. The first thing the Coales did was to call Kevin. “Honey! We did it. You’re going to go! You’re going to go!” I could hear Kevin yelling on the other end of the phone.
The school district appealed the decision to Family Court. The appeal happened at the time that the prior Brandywine school lawyer, Barbara Crowell, was appointed as a judge in that very same Family Court. Her sponsor was Judge Poppitti. Poppitti was assigned to hear the Coale appeal, and they could not find an attorney to represent them. They offered to sell their house to raise the money if only a lawyer could be found. There was nobody. Suzanne represented the family pro se. Poppitti roasted her throughout the trial while he helped the new Brandywine Board attorney to question, present arguments of law against the Coales, and to denigrate the parents at every opportunity. It was a gang rape. The victims lost and the rapist won. The Coales were pinned down to the ground and ripped bare, while Brandywine and the Family Court hammered them inside and out.
Kevin was devastated that he did not go to the school that could teach him to read. His parents promised to appeal the Family Court decision to the federal court and to find an attorney. Another year had passed. Kevin hated school. He was now withdrawn, often walking alone along the road kicking cans or stones along the way. Soon after Poppitti’ overturned the panel decision, he took one of those walks. The details are too gruesome to tell. He was hit head on by a large truck, one Coale turned to dust.