Over the years of practicing Special Education Law, I have seen certain themes arise time and time again. There are certainly differences among them. But as Mark Twain said, “History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes.” I’ll be posting an ongoing series of blog posts dedicated to some of the common themes I see. The stories I will share are primarily for parents of children with disabilities. And I hope it offers some validation and solace when they have felt so alone. But, to some extent, these stories are also for parents of children without disabilities who may not “get it.”
When I tell parents of children without disabilities what I do, they often will say something to the effect of, “Oh, you get private schools for Parents.” Well, not exactly. Many of these people think that other parents just want to get the districts to pay for some fancy private school for their kids. I could have a very long discussion as to how very wrong they are. But for now, I’m going to focus on the fact that they just don’t understand the journey these Parents have been on before they even reach out to me.
For parents who are just starting out on this crazy journey (and it may be a 12+ year relationship with their child’s school district), I hope this series of posts helps them feel validated; that they were not “crazy” after all. And I’m not just speaking as to what I’ve seen as an attorney. I’m speaking from personal experience as well.
Here is the backdrop of so many cases I have had over the years. Many of you may see more than just a bit of similarity to your experiences. Oh, and get used to those acronyms.
Joey had some issues when he was young. He was behind in reaching his milestones. He started speaking late so he received Speech and Language Therapy (SLT) through Early Intervention when he was about 2.5 years old. As soon as he hit 3 years old, he qualified for services through the Committee on Preschool Special Education (CPSE). The CPSE assessed him and determined that his motor coordination was below average, so they added Occupational Therapy (OT) services.
When Joey entered Kindergarten, he “graduated” to the Committee on Special Education (CSE) which will be responsible for meeting his needs up to the point that he either leaves school or is no longer eligible for special education services. The CSE determined that he was still behind in speech and language and motor coordination, so they continued to offer him SLT and OT.
Joey had his Annual Review meeting in May to assess his needs and determine what supports he would need for first grade. Joey’s parents told the CSE that they were concerned. He still seemed behind the other kids. When it came to reading, he didn’t seem to be “getting it.” They also had been hearing from the teacher that Joey was very “energetic” and would sometimes run around the room during story time. The CSE said not to worry. This was common, especially for boys. But “they got this.” They’ve seen this many times. He was making progress and he would be fine.
Joey had a rough first grade. He was still having a hard time learning how to read, but the teacher said she was giving him a little more 1:1 time to help him. And he seemed more hyperactive in class. The parents brought him to his pediatrician for a checkup and she suggested they bring him to a developmental pediatrician. When they did, the doctor diagnosed their child with ADHD.
In May, Joey had his Annual Review to determine how to address his needs for second grade. The Parents told the CSE about Joey’s new ADHD diagnosis. They also pointed out that the teacher reports were showing he was almost a year behind in reading; even with the SLT he was receiving. They were getting concerned. The CSE reassured them. They would give him some accommodations. He could sit at the front of the class and the teacher would “check for understanding” to make sure that he didn’t get lost during lessons. But don’t worry they said. He was not that far behind and some kids just take a little longer to develop than others. This was especially true for boys, they said.
Joey had another tough year in second grade. His parents saw him struggling. He seemed to be falling further behind in reading. And his behavior was still an issue in class. Now he seemed to also being having social issues. In May, Joey had his Annual Review meeting. “He’s made nice progress this year,” said his teacher and Speech Therapist. But Joey’s parents pointed out his struggles in reading. The CSE Chairperson pointed to F&P levels, Standard Scores, WJ-IV scores, Beery VMI, etc. and said “See, he’s making progress.” Joey’s poor parents’ heads were spinning with all the acronyms. What about his attention? The teacher said he could get distracted, “but responds well to redirection.” Social issues? “He’s a sweet boy and gets along with most of his classmates.” “He was having some issues at the start of the school year, but we’ve been working with him to learn to share and be more careful with his language to the other students. He’s doing much better.” Joey’s parents thought to themselves that obviously these people have their child’s best interests at heart. I mean, they wanted what’s best for Joey, right? And they had been doing this forever, so they must have known what he needed. Nevertheless, they were still a little unsure.
A day after the Annual Review meeting, I get a call. Joey’s parents are on the line. They tell me their concerns. I listen and validate them. I point to the maxim that kids are “learning to read” until about third grade and “reading to learn” starting around fourth grade. It’s around this time that the delays become more obvious. I tell them Joey’s is a common story. I give them some general advice and some guidance on the school’s responsibilities toward students with disabilities. I point out that the school does not have to provide “what’s best” for Joey, only “what’s appropriate.” I suggest that Joey may need more support than he’s getting. I can almost picture their eyes rolling up, as if searching for the right answer, as they consider what I’m saying. Finally, they thank me and say they’re going to continue to work with their school because they say Joey is doing okay. I tell them they’re free to give me a call in the future and wish them luck.
One or two years later, Joey’s parents are calling me again. This time, their tone is very different than before. I can’t repeat some of what they say. Terms like “gaslighting” and “they just don’t care” and “they only care about the money” roll off their tongues. They’re tired of all the fighting. They’re tired of feeling unheard. But the single more important thing that drives their rage is the guilt they feel for the suffering their child has had with school. It’s their fault, they say. Then we have a consultation and I tell them that they’re not alone, they are not responsible for any of it, it’s not too late, and we CAN AND WILL do something to help Joey NOW.
This is not the story of “unreasonable parents.” This is not the story of parents who just want their districts to pay for a fancy private school. These are parents who tried to work with their schools and now feel betrayed and responsible for their children’s suffering.
So, does any of this sound familiar to you? If not, stick around. Maybe the next story will.
If you have questions about your child, please contact me.