Wednesday, June 30, 2010

California parents sue school district over non-challenging special ed curriculum they say is "babysitting"

From The Press Tribune in Roseville, Calif.:

Patrick MacAuley is on his school’s honor roll.

The 13-year-old earns 100 percent on many of his assignments. There are few red marks on his homework and hardly any corrections or comments.

That’s precisely what concerns his mom.

As a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, Patrick was enrolled in what’s known as a Special Day Class at Warren T. Eich Intermediate School in Roseville last year. But his mother Dodie MacAuley calls it “babysitting.” His homework — even the papers marked “A” — contain misspellings, incomplete and incorrect answers. He reads at a third-grade level.

“We just want him to get an education,” she said.

Dodie and her husband Ian MacAuley (pictured) say the Roseville City School District has failed to properly accommodate their special needs child after the district refused to conduct — and pay for — an independent evaluation of Patrick. The evaluation would help establish standards for Patrick’s education and hold the district accountable for meeting them.

The parents made the request because they’re unsatisfied with the results of an occupational therapy assessment completed by the district, which shows Patrick isn’t eligible for special services.

The school district responded by initiating legal action against the family in June.

“We’re obligated to pursue this course of action, if the district feels the assessment is appropriate,” said Tim Ribota, director of student services for the Roseville City School District.

He said that federal and state laws impose a mandatory obligation on public school districts to file for due process in this situation. He said the district “stands behind the integrity of its staff and believes its assessment is appropriate.”

The problem, though, is that federal special education law doesn’t specifically define “appropriate,” which sometimes leaves parents and school districts at odds. And this confusion has contributed to sharply escalating costs associated with educating students with special needs.

The Roseville City School District currently serves around 1,100 children with identified disabilities, out of a total population of around 9,800 students in its 17 elementary and middle schools.

Ribota said the district doesn’t know yet how much the current legal proceedings will cost, although he said similar cases have cost other districts up to $30,000. The Gutierrez Law Firm is representing the district. Conducting an independent evaluation varies on a case-by-case basis, but typically costs between $300 and $5,000, Ribota said.

This doesn’t sit well with the MacAuleys who question why a district with a $3 million deficit is spending money on legal fees.

“(Patrick) only has a year left in the district,” Dodie MacAuley said. “So why is the school district wasting money when they could be spending it on children?”

The family has already paid about $6,000 in legal fees.

“This is all over a handwriting goal,” she said. “Just give us a handwriting goal.”

This goal would set measurable standards for handwriting — proper capitalization, spacing and more — and hold the district accountable for implementing a program geared to her son’s needs.

But Ribota said because the district’s assessment of Patrick determined that his occupational therapy scores don’t indicate an area of need, he isn’t eligible for services, which means a handwriting goal can’t be established.

Dodie and Ian MacAuley say they’ve always wanted the best for their son and daughter, both adopted by the Roseville couple as babies out of foster care. But this road hasn’t been smoothly paved, especially for Patrick. Doctors diagnosed him with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder when he was in kindergarten and put him on medication. As a first grader, he was diagnosed with dyslexia.

Several years ago, Patrick’s parents placed him in public school before switching to Wings Learning Resources in Citrus Heights, which closed last year. So he returned to public school in November to complete 7th grade.

At this time, the school placed him in a Special Day Class for math, language arts, reading and writing, and an elective — these classes target students who have more intensive needs than can be met by regular school programs. He was mainstreamed for science.

In January, the district conducted assessments in the areas of speech and language, psychological and occupational therapy, and determined that Patrick didn’t qualify for additional services. But the parents were unsatisfied with the findings.

“What they do is the bare minimum,” MacAuley said. “It’s not thorough. They’re never doing complete assessments.”

In the June lawsuit, the district asked the judge to determine if the district’s occupational therapy evaluation is appropriate and, if so, the district can deny the request for an independent evaluation.

“We agreed it’s appropriate at this time,” Dodie MacAuley said.

But the MacAuleys said the district refuses to add “at this time” to the statement.

On June 17, both parties met for a second hearing in front of Office of Administrative Hearings Judge Deborah Myers-Cregar. Because the parties couldn’t reach an agreement, the judge will issue a decision in early August.

“That’s pretty unusual,” said Michael Rosenberg, executive director of the Development Disabilities Area Board III for the State of California, which serves Placer County. “It’s not standard procedure (to file a due process hearing). They should be finding a solution and negotiating.”

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — which affirms the right of all disabled children to a free, appropriate public education — intends that school districts and families seek resolution through mediation prior to filing a request for a due process hearing.

The purpose of the law is, in part, to ensure that children receive services deigned to meet their unique needs and prepare them for employment and independent living. Patrick has dyslexia, which impairs his ability to read. His parents worry that his undeveloped handwriting and reading skills, if not addressed now, will lead to problems down the road.

“In my experience, kids who struggle in school become the class clowns, (develop) behavior issues, end up leaving school or end up in continuation schools that are maybe not supportive of their learning issues,” Rosenberg said. “It takes a great deal of fortitude and commitment in families to find a solution. If you can’t read, you have a difficult time being successful in school and in life.”