Parents Battle DOE Over Special Ed

Lorraine Doucette crossing the street with her sons Liam (4 years old, walking) and Jason (6 years old, in the chair). (Photo by Adi Talwar via City Limits)

Lorraine Doucette crossing the street with her sons Liam (4 years old, walking) and Jason (6 years old, in the chair). (Photo by Adi Talwar via City Limits)

More than 150,000 public school children in New York City qualify for an Individualized Education Plan by virtue of their special needs requirements, and additional numbers of children have been placed outside the public school system to be educated in private schools paid for by the Department of Education. For the parents of children with disabilities and special needs, ensuring that their children get the “free and appropriate education” that they are entitled to by federal law can be a daunting task, involving dealing with a special ed bureaucracy that is especially challenging to negotiate, writes Ruth Ford in City Limits.

Whether it’s pressing to get your child placed in a private school or simply trying to get the services he has been assigned actually implemented, statistics and anecdotes indicate that parents without a lawyer at their side face almost impossible odds.

Indeed, of the 5,600 families who filed complaints to the New York City Deptartment of Education in 2012-2013, fully 81 percent of them had the assistance of an attorney or advocate in pressing their cases. Children may have mild speech and/or motor delays, or they may have far more serious disabilities. Ford tells the harrowing story of one child, Jason, now 6, whose mother, Lorraine Doucette, was eventually forced to seek the pro bono help of a lawyer.

First, there was the issue of the missing classroom aide, whose absence kept Jason—who can’t walk on his own—out of school for the first two weeks of class. Then his occupational therapy was delayed. It took two more months for the school to agree to evaluate Jason, who can’t speak, for an electronic communication device, and then he was assigned one less sophisticated than the one he had the year before, when he was four years old and in pre-school.

But it was only after Jason was hospitalized with dehydration in late March, 2013, says Doucette, that she decided it was time to take action. Along with his neuro-genetic disorder, Jason cannot swallow food and has to drink all his meals. A month earlier she had learned that because his teacher felt Jason’s drinking from a bottle was “socially inappropriate” – the language she used with Doucette when confronted by her – Jason’s aide was bringing him to the nurse’s office so he could finish his meals in peace.

Funding may be behind some of the problems, writes Ford.

Schools receive more federal funding for placing students in the least restrictive classes than they do for specialized or the most restrictive classes—as part of the federal mandate that all children be educated in the least restrictive environment, if possible—so principals tend to put students in integrated classrooms, and then tack on additional services. Sometimes it works. Many times it doesn’t.

Read more at City Limits about how pro bono attorneys are helping low-income parents navigate the system, especially when it comes to demanding that the DOE pay for a private school education that would be more appropriate for a child.

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