Parents want more power in special education
Evan O’Brien likes to play with his Rubik’s Cube and shoot basketballs in his front yard in Pasadena. The repetition helps him relax.
Evan, a fifth-grader at Bodkin Elementary School, suffers from autism, a brain disorder that makes it difficult for him to do school work and process his emotions.
He has a hard time following instructions, participating in class and understanding his reading assignments.
Evan’s parents, Daune and Aaron, want more decision-making power in his education plan.
Parents, like Evan’s, lobbied to the General Assembly earlier this year for a bill that would require parents to sign off on major changes to their children’s education plan, such as ending special education services and program placement.
The bill was later amended to propose a work group to make recommendations about parental consent requirements in special education.
State Sen. Joan Carter Conway, D-Baltimore City, who sponsors the bill, said past versions of the proposal failed in the General Assembly, and she hopes the work group approach will be more successful. The Senate passed the bill and the House of Delegates is considering it.
A hearing on the proposal is scheduled for 1 p.m. Thursday.
Parents say they are disappointed the original version of the proposal did not stay intact.
This school year, the school system managed 35 requests for mediation between parents and school staff over disagreements in special education decisions, and less than five went before an administrative law judge, said school spokeswoman Maneka Monk.
The school system has about 7,200 students in special education programs, just under 10 percent of the student population. Approximately 2,300 other students are in a program where they receive special accommodations for disabilities, such as vision problems.
The O’Briens said they don’t feel like an equal member of the special education team because school staff can override their opinions on important decisions. Other parents share that feeling.
Sarah Davis, a Davidsonville resident who has multiple children in special education programs, said parental input is not given enough consideration.
She said without money to hire legal help, she can’t challenge school decisions.
The O’Briens spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal fees and experts to fight the school system’s decision last spring to take Evan off of his special education plan, which includes specialists and school staff that help him overcome his disability in school. But before a judge could consider the dispute, school officials put Evan back in the program last fall.
Monk said she can’t comment on a student’s record due to privacy laws.
Giving parents more power in these decisions may have significant costs, according to a legislative analysis.
If parents choose the educational placement of their special needs children, they may opt for options that increase state and local costs.
The school board voted against the original version of the bill because it would require the school system to take legal action against parents to settle disagreements.
School officials wrote in a document that summarized their position that “teachers will miss more days with students to testify in due process hearings.”
School board president Stacy Korbelak said the board opposes the proposal to require parental consent for certain decisions. She said parents want the best for their children, but school staff know the resources the students need.
Korbelak said parents are “not the experts in special education.” But she stressed that parents, like teachers, have an opportunity to work together and provide evidence during disagreements.
Special education parents
During a recent morning on spring break, Evan effortlessly dribbled a basketball in his front yard, passing it underneath his leg from one hand to the other. He proudly showed off his athletic skills by spinning the ball on his finger.
Beyond academics, Evan also needs help with social skills, such as coping with unexpected changes. He struggles to find the right words to use in conversation.
Daune O’Brien said kids like Evan “are very dependent on predictability. When they don’t have that, it creates a lot of anxiety.”
His anxiety has been so severe that he has been doing school work from home for more than a month, his parents said.
Evan’s parents said he suffers panic attacks that prevent him from stepping onto the school bus.
A folder from school on Evan’s desk is labeled “We missed you while you were out. Please finish your work as soon as possible.”
When Evan can’t understand his school work and doesn’t get along with his instructors, he said he gets anxious. While he’s working to manage those emotions, he finds peace in some of his hobbies.
Glancing at his colorful Rubik’s Cube, he said when he plays the game, “I just pretty much forget about everything.”
His mom, a lecturer at the University of Maryland, said she reads special education law, court cases and books so she can be a knowledgeable advocate. And many parents share Daune’s commitment to their children’s special education.
Davis, a stay-at-home mom, said advocating for her 11-year-old daughter’s education is a full-time job.
She has done “countless” hours of research, reading legal documents, working with medical professionals and talking with school staff to make sure her daughter is getting the best education.
Lilli, a Central Middle School sixth-grader, suffers from autism and physical disabilities that make it hard for her to grip a pencil and easy for her to break her bones.
On a recent afternoon, Lilli sat on her couch with her legs crossed. An orange T-shirt with a cartoon chicken hung on her small frame. Her dark-rimmed glasses slid down her nose slightly when she spoke.
Lilli’s school work is different than her classmates. She pulls out a binder that’s almost as thick as the width of her hand. Her special education teacher writes her notes and she fills in the key words.
“She helps me figure out what I’m going to say,” Lilli said.
She also struggles with capitalization and punctuation.
“It’s hard for me to remember where to put things,” Lilli said.
When Lilli was in elementary school, Davis fought to increase Lilli’s special education services, she said.
Lilli receives help for her speech impediment, which makes it hard for her to pronounce the Rs in words like “Maryland” and “private.” She also uses a computer to take notes.
She gets extra time to finish quizzes and tends to “day dream” in class, she said.
In her free time, she likes to play video games and watch football with her dad.
Davis worries about Lilli getting hurt, falling behind in class and not making enough friends.
But the middle-schooler says she likes to be “reckless.” She wants to play sports, stay up late at night and grow up to be a video game designer or cybersecurity programmer.