Danuta Kalinowska looks at her 12-year-old grandson Oliwier “Oli” Kluzik as he plays Minecraft at their Northwest Side home, Thursday afternoon, Sept. 12, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

A Chicago student with autism should be in school. Instead, he’s at home while CPS and his family battle over which one

Oliwier Kluzik’s relatives are fighting to keep him at a suburban therapeutic school where he thrived, but the district said it’s not on an approved list of contracted schools.

On a sunny and hot mid-September afternoon, 12-year-old Oliwier Kluzik is at home playing with his dog, Nika, and spending time on his Xbox designing a maze in the virtual-building game Minecraft.

After he’s done with the maze, the boy runs from one room to the next in his grandmother’s home in Dunning. More than once, he walks into the home’s front room and proclaims, “I’m happy.”

There’s only one problem: It’s 1:45 p.m. on a Thursday and he should be in school.

oliwier kluzik

Oliwier “Oli” Kluzik, 12, plays with the family dog, Nika, at his grandmother’s Northwest Side home, Thursday afternoon, Sept. 12, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

‘Who has the money to fight Goliath?’

Oliwier — or as his family calls him, “Oli” — has autism. And he’s had a traumatic few months.

In January, Oli’s single mother died of breast cancer. In May, Oli and his brother Dorian, who was born blind and has an intellectual disability, moved out of their house. And since then, Oli has been out of school and isn’t looking likely to go back soon.

That’s because a legal battle has been playing out between Oli’s family and the Chicago Public Schools over which school he should attend.

Oli’s family wants to keep him at the specialized therapeutic day school in west suburban Lombard where he’s made huge academic and social strides the past two years. They say that will help him avoid any further unnecessary disruption to his life.

“He loves the school. He runs to the school,” Oli’s uncle, Marek Kalinowski, said last week. “There he’s safe, he trusts people. And he comes back happy.”

oliwier kluzik

Oliwier “Oli” Kluzik, 12, jumps on the couch at his grandmother’s Northwest Side home, Thursday afternoon, Sept. 12, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Matt Cohen, a Chicago attorney who is an expert in special education and disability law, said change can be difficult for kids with autism and avoiding it is a “legitimate reason” to have them stay at their current school.

“Change can erase whatever gains they’re making,” said Cohen, who was told details of the case by the Sun-Times. “If you move the kid to a new school, you’re having to reinvent the wheel in terms of how to help them.”

It’s common for CPS and most other school districts — such as Oli’s old district, Elgin Area School District U-46 — to place kids at private therapeutic day schools, even in different cities and miles away, when necessary and appropriate for a student. CPS sends more than 1,080 students to 65 therapeutic schools.

But since Oli and his brother Dorian moved from Bartlett to live with their grandmother in Chicago when their mom died, CPS has said it wants to place him at a different school.

Some of the reasons given to the family, according to documents reviewed by the Sun-Times, include that the school in Lombard isn’t one of the vendors CPS typically works with, and there aren’t “viable transportation routes” to the school. 

In one document, a CPS official contended that “the district already contracts with numerous schools who can implement a broad range” of special education plans for students like Oli.

Oli’s family thinks those reasons are insufficient and inconsiderate, even if within the school district’s legal rights.

“There’s never once by CPS ever been a question as to whether [Oli’s school] was appropriate,” said Sabrina Shafer, the family’s attorney. “The question is not appropriate. We’ve already found the appropriate school.”

The back-and-forth, however, shows the delicate balance CPS faces in using its established procedures while considering families’ concerns in deciding what best suits a child’s needs. CPS says it’s trying its best to accommodate with families within its guidelines.

“Feedback from parents and guardians is highly valued as part of the placement process,” district spokesman Michael Passman said in a written statement to the Sun-Times.

The battle to keep Oli in a school he’s familiar with while going through so much other change hasn’t been easy on the family. As Oli’s uncle puts it, “Who has the money to fight Goliath?”

Risking a setback

In early December, Oli came home from school to find his mother, who was going through her second battle with breast cancer, collapsed on the floor. Anna Kalinowski died a month later at age 46.

Oli and Dorian’s grandmother, Danuta Kalinowska, moved into their Bartlett home temporarily, but in May, after school got out, they all moved to her Northwest Side home.

Chief among the family’s concerns was keeping Oli at the School of Expressive Arts and Learning (SEAL) in Lombard. The school offers students a program with various types of therapy that complements their education, including art, music, animal and recreational therapy.

seal lombard

The School of Expressive Arts and Learning (SEAL) in Lombard offers therapeutic services to students with special needs.

Nader Issa/Sun-Times

“It just helps the students to gain their self-esteem and gain some skills to express themselves in a more functional way,” said Chris Robertson, principal at SEAL’s Lombard location.

As recently as 2017, Oli was almost completely nonverbal and would go through episodes of serious aggression. Sometimes, he would walk into a room and start banging his head against a wall. Other times, he was aggressive toward classmates and teachers in school, or would throw desks and chairs.

Two years after Oli was moved from his public school to SEAL, he still has progress to make but is now faring much better — he strings together sentences, he’s more friendly with others and is more positive and upbeat while not putting himself down as often.

cps special education

Attorney Sabrina Shaffer and Marek Kalinowski listen as Judy Ruffulo discusses 12-year-old Oliwier “Oli” Kluzik’s schooling situation, Thursday afternoon, Sept. 12, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

“If I were the parent, that would be huge,” Cohen said. “Why would you want to risk him having a setback?”

That, however, doesn’t hold “legal significance,” he said. Just because a student has made progress in one school doesn’t necessarily mean the district has to keep him there. On the flip side, Cohen said, just because there are other schools that offer similar services doesn’t mean CPS has to move him.

When Oli moved to Chicago, CPS accepted his existing Individualized Education Program, a document which lays out what services educators are required to provide. Oli’s 42-page IEP reads, in part: “A change in educational structure and environment is considered detrimental to his educational progress and growth.”

It goes on to note the methods used to keep him on track: “Classroom free time, animal breaks, free time on the computer, time with familiar/preferred staff.” It also says he should attend summer school.

State-approved, but not CPS-contracted

Though the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) has a long list of approved therapeutic schools that students can be sent to for special education, CPS — like some other districts — has its own list of contracted vendors that provide those services.

In Oli’s case, SEAL is not a contracted CPS vendor even though it’s on the state’s approved list. It could take months for CPS to approve a school as a vendor, and the district says the school has not sought to initiate that process.

Passman said SEAL “has not attempted to serve as a vendor for CPS students, which means the district cannot send students to that school at this time.”

“ ... The vendor verification process exists to ensure that students are being supported by programs that are certified, properly insured, and in good standing with CPS,” Passman said.

In July, Oli’s family filed a complaint with the state and asked for a hearing with an independent arbiter. They found out last week that a hearing won’t take place until the last day of January.

CPS has recommended at least three schools it believes can serve Oli and implement his IEP other than SEAL. The district told the family that one of the schools said it would take him.

But Oli’s autism advocate, Judy Ruffulo, said in a sworn affidavit that she reached out to all three schools, and they all said they don’t offer the same services Oli had been receiving at SEAL. In fact, an administrator at one of the schools suggested that the family look into SEAL as an option for Oli, she said.

‘Very problematic’ transportation reasoning

Oli’s family says another reason given by CPS not to send Oli to SEAL is that there “isn’t an established transportation route” to the school. In a sworn affidavit, a CPS official said “the District [does not] have any viable transportation routes to SEAL.”

Federal special education laws, however, require a student’s home district provide transportation.

“What CPS does that is very problematic is they tell parents that unless they already have an established transportation route, they won’t send a kid to a school,” Cohen, the special education attorney, said.

Passman, the CPS spokesman, refuted that in a written statement.

“CPS provides transportation to students outside of the city and the county in order for them to access the therapeutic schools that meets their needs. Routes are created as needed to ensure students are able to access the schools that best meet their needs,” he said.

The district spends $12.5 million per year on transportation for students at therapeutic schools.

‘I want to go to my school’

Until the process sorts itself out, Oli is staying home.

“It’s much better than from the beginning when their mother died,” Oli’s grandmother said. “There was a couple months, really bad.”

oli kluzik

Danuta Kalinowska hugs her 12-year-old grandson Oliwier “Oli” Kluzik at their Northwest Side home, Thursday afternoon, Sept. 12, 2019.

Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

But staying at home while CPS and his family fight it out is very likely going to be detrimental to Oli’s development.

“There’s nothing that says CPS has to be doing this,” said Cohen, who represented a group of advocates who prompted a state investigation of the district’s special education services last year. “I would say that at CPS it’s not impossible that they would be sensitive to the concerns of parents and the needs of the kids, but it would be the exception. They’re driven by what’s financially and administratively convenient for them.”

Despite the fact he is happy at home, Oli is ready to get back to class.

“I like my teachers. I like my friends,” Oli said, taking a break from his dog and Minecraft. “I want to go to my school.”

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