After suing a parent for $600,000, Bedford School Board reduces case to $1 • Virginia Mercury

The Bedford County School Board is de-escalating its efforts to charge a parent with a history of hostile interactions with school staff over accommodations for his son with special needs. But a lawyer for the father involved denounced the statement the board issued this week and suggested the case may not be over.

The board announced this on Wednesday previous request at least $600,000 in damages has been reduced to just $1 after the parent, David Rife, agreed to new ground rules on how he and school staff would communicate.

Virginia school board files $600,000 lawsuit against father of special needs student

A hearing in the case was scheduled for Wednesday. That hearing was canceled after the two sides indicated they would resolve the dispute less formally. Court records show the case has not yet been fully dismissed.

In a news release Wednesday afternoon, Bedford County Public Schools said the lawsuit “was never about collecting money from the parent.”

“While our lawsuit remains active, as a measure of good faith, we have instructed our attorney to reduce the monetary component of the lawsuit to $1,” the school department said. “If the communications plan is complied with, we intend to dismiss the lawsuit.”

The school division’s statement said leaders “remain strongly committed to the rights of parents.”

“We strongly encourage parents to actively participate in and monitor their children’s public education,” the statement said. “However, we also wholeheartedly support our many excellent teachers and staff. No parent has the right to inappropriately threaten or blasphemously abuse teachers.”

Although the school department’s statement suggested matters were being worked out, Rife’s attorney, David Whitehurst, issued his own statement Thursday accusing school officials of continuing to defame his client.

“These are baseless allegations from their lawsuit, which we have refuted and have not yet been decided by a judge,” Whitehurst said. “Repeating it in a public statement is a continued attempt to smear and tarnish Mr. Rife and his reputation.”

Whitehurst also questioned the schools’ claim that the lawsuit was not about money, saying the large damages sought from Rife “caused great stress and anxiety for both the parent and his son.”

“Their claim for damages included $350,000 in punitive damages, the maximum amount allowed under state law,” Whitehurst said. “This is not consistent with the fact that a lawsuit is never about money.”

The school board, which serves a largely rural county between Lynchburg and Roanoke, filed a civil lawsuit against Rife in late March, alleging that the frequency and tone of his phone calls, emails and personal conversations with school employees amounted to unlawful harassment and intimidation . . The school system’s lawsuits detailed several examples of Rife using profanity and threatening to call the police on staffers he felt were not taking his concerns seriously and providing his son with an adequate education.

In response, Rife and his attorney acknowledged that Rife had used “rude” language, but portrayed the school board’s lawsuit as an attempt to punish a parent for “passionately advocating for his child.” Rife’s concerns about the school’s handling of his son’s learning disability were partially vindicated after he filed a complaint with the Virginia Department of Education early this year. The state agency found that Bedford school officials failed to adhere to several elements of the individualized education program (IEP) designed to help Rife’s son improve his reading skills. Rife filed his own legal claims against the school division, asking the court to require compliance with the IEP.

The case led to a local backlash. After news stories about the lawsuit were published, a Facebook page dedicated to discussing school issues in Bedford County raised questions about why the division felt it had to go so far as to sue a parent for more than half a million dollars. According to several school board members, the board was unaware of the lawsuit regional news channel Cardinal News. However, the school board itself was listed as the plaintiff who brought the case, with assistance from attorneys from the Richmond office of the law firm Sands Anderson.

Whitehurst said the new rules on interactions between Rife and school staff were a joint agreement between both parties. Despite the board calling it a “communications plan,” Whitehurst said the two sides had previously agreed not to use that term.

Rife’s attorney also pointed out that school officials do not have the final say on whether or not the legal battle continues because Rife has filed competing claims about their inability to comply with the IEP.

“Two days ago we were hopeful that things would move forward in a positive way in this case,” Whitehurst said. “The board’s statement has greatly clouded that hope.”