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Special Ed & School Districts: Parents Struggle On To Get Their Kids What They Need

May 24, 2011
by Kristina Chew

Parents Battle School Districts for Special Support reads a headline in last week's New York Times about two San Francisco parents' struggle with the public school district to get appropriate educational services for their young autistic child, Sebastian. Caroline Barwick and her husband, Russell Huerta, sued the school district. Barwick and Huerta are, says the New York Times, "part of a growing number of parents of special-needs children who are battling the school district over federally mandated support." With the SF school district facing a budget shortfall of $25 million -- and with the educational services for an autistic child potentially costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars -- much was indeed at stake.

Much has long been at stake when it comes to educating kids with disabilities: Parents battling the school district for special support happens everyday, in communities all across the country. My son Charlie is 14 years old; he has received special education services since he was 2 years old and just diagnosed with autism in St. Paul, Minnesota. Charlie has always been in special education classes. Up until he was in middle school, he was mostly placed in classrooms that were specifically for autistic students as they relied on a teaching methodology called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which is based on the principles of behavior therapy.

It is thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that Charlie and children with disabilities are entitled to a "free and appropriate" public education in what is called the "least restricted environment." That is, school districts are required to "educate students with disabilities in regular classrooms with their nondisabled peers, in the school they would attend if not disabled, to the maximum extent appropriate," according to the special education law and advocacy site Wrightslaw.

While we strove to keep Charlie in as "least restricted" a setting as possible in autism classrooms, we came to realize that, for him, placement in a "more restricted" setting -- a county autism center -- when he entered adolescence was a more "appropriate" environment for him to learn in. This decision was only made after some increasingly difficult experiences for Charlie in a special education classroom in a public middle school with some 1,800 students. Aware of the dramatic increase in students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, schools have sought to create in-district programs and hire their own consultants as such arrangement tend to be cheaper than (1) sending a child out of district and (2) fighting a legal battle, should parents decide they have no choice but to seek due process and sue a school district to obtain the education their child needs.

Barwick and Huerta indeed sued on behalf of Sebastian after a frustrating back-and-forth with the SF school district that sounds all to familiar to me:

Before meeting with the district, Ms. Barwick, who is an insurance underwriter, and Mr. Huerta, who works for a software start-up, asked three times to visit the district’s programs for children with autism but said their requests were ignored. At the October meeting, they said, district representatives dominated the discussion and failed to make a formal placement offer, as mandated by federal law and the California education code.

In subsequent mediations, the district was represented by the Southern California law firm of Leal and Trejo, which advocated for the district’s proposal: less than half the weekly therapy hours recommended by outside experts and a classroom assignment in which Sebastian would not be accompanied by an aide.

Ms. Barwick described the district’s offer as: “Your kid has autism, you get package A.”

....Negotiations dragged on for months as Ms. Barwick’s and Mr. Huerta’s expenses mounted. Mr. [Michael] Zatopa, their lawyer, said the case was similar to others in which Leal and Trejo showed an uncommon willingness to litigate even when the evidence appeared to be stacked high against the district

In our experience dealing with school districts in Minnesota, Missouri and New Jersey, parents are always told that their child's individual needs are being taken into account. But too often, one realizes one is just getting "package A, B or C"; once we even found that a draft copy of Charlie's Individualized Education Plan (IEP) contained the name "Raymond" -- that's the name of the autistic character Dustin Hoffman played in the film Rain Man.

Happily, Barwick and Huerta prevailed in their case and the San Francisco school district was ordered to reimburse them for about $55,000 for Sebastian's therapy and education during the seven-month dispute. It's alarming, though, to see that the SF school district hired the southern California-based Leal and Trejo, a self-described "aggressive law firm with a client-centered focus" rather than relying on the school district's own lawyers. One wishes that the school district had spent all the dollars it must have paid/be paying Leal and Trejo on educating children -- isn't that what school districts are supposed to do?

"Special Ed & School Districts: Parents Struggle On To Get Their Kids What They Need "

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