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Teacher wins maltreatment appeal

WILLMAR -- A maltreatment ruling against a Willmar special education teacher has been reversed in Kandiyohi County District Court.

The maltreatment ruling issued by the Minnesota Department of Education against teacher Lisa VanDerHeiden was reversed by District Judge Michael Thompson is a ruling filed in Kandiyohi County late last week.

The maltreatment finding grew from a spring 2004 incident in which VanDerHeiden chose to address a behavior issue with a child before taking her to the restroom. The child wet her pants in VanDerHeiden's classroom before she was able to go to the restroom. VanDerHeiden was assigned to Lincoln Elementary School at the time. She currently teaches at Lakeview School at Willmar Regional Treatment Center.

Thompson found that the maltreatment ruling issued by Deputy Commissioner Chas Anderson was not supported by evidence. He also found that Anderson's interpretation of statutes was narrow.

An initial Department of Education investigation found that VanDerHeiden's actions had constituted maltreatment. She appealed, and a judge in an administrative hearing recommended reversing the finding. Anderson later issued a final determination reinstating the maltreatment ruling, and VanDerHeiden appealed in District Court.

The Department of Education had the burden of proving that delaying the child's access to a restroom was actually a denial of access, Thompson wrote. However, the department did not prove that, he wrote.

The Department also showed no intent to violate state statute, Thompson wrote.

Thompson found that a maltreatment finding would expose VanDerHeiden to moral condemnation in the community and could affect her future employment. It would be unfair to do that without proof that she intended to hurt the child.

"Petitioner chose to deal with the out-of-control behavior first, but there is no evidence of any intent on her part to maltreat the girl by denying her access to the bathroom," Thompson wrote.

The state had argued that delaying access to the restroom was the same as denying access and that two other investigations had found that maltreatment had occurred.

Attorneys from both sides could not be reached Monday afternoon.

Linda Owen, a spokesperson for Education Minnesota, issued a statement. Education Minnesota's legal department represented VanDerHeiden in the appeal.

"We're very pleased with the decision. Ms. Van Der Heiden is an excellent teacher who has had her professional reputation unfairly damaged by this charge," she said. "The judge's ruling confirms her consistent position that she did not mistreat her student, and it also confirms Education Minnesota's position that the decision of the Minnesota Department of Education was arbitrary and not supported by the complete facts of this case."

Van Der Heiden has also been the focus of a federal lawsuit alleging that she violated the civil rights of a student. That lawsuit has been dismissed, but the plaintiffs are appealing the dismissal. Briefs have been filed in the appeal, but no hearing date has been set.

She has been the subject of an investigation by the Department of Education's division of special education compliance and assistance, which found numerous violations of state and federal regulations in her classroom. The state Board of Teaching is monitoring her performance as a result of the investigations.