Monday, April 27, 2009

Illinois father wins access to his kids' schools

From the Chicago Daily Herald:

Mike Lyons (pictured) saw the flight of stairs and decided he'd reached the end of his rapidly fraying rope.

The father of two students at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates had missed teacher conferences and awards ceremonies. He'd been isolated from the crowd at football games and swim meets.

So when Lyons, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair, learned his daughter's recital was in the basement choir room, despite earlier assurances from the principal he'd be accommodated, Lyons took action.

Four years later - and three years since his youngest graduated - the Schaumburg man is finally confident other parents with disabilities won't miss out as he did.

Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 recently signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights resolving a complaint filed by Lyons, his wife Christine, their daughter Becky and Chicago-based advocacy group Equip for Equality.

"I'm ecstatic," said Mike Lyons, 58. "This was a long fight. It will benefit whole new generations of students, families and teachers."

The agreement follows $53 million in renovations since 2006 to four of the district's five high schools and administration building. Much of that spending was not directly related to improving access for the disabled, but the work did remedy what advocates say were the most egregious of the Lyons' complaints. That included:

• Relocating Conant's special education department.

• Adding ramps to the school's second gym.

• Improving accessibility to Conant's football stadium.

• Making various classrooms, restrooms, entrances and parking accessible.

• Installing new elevators and adding more ground-floor classrooms.

About $18 million was spent on Conant's rehab, though District 211 spokesman Tom Petersen said there's no breakdown of what was allocated for accessibility improvements.

The district has also designated one person to coordinate compliance efforts, updated its Web site and adopted new procedures for accommodating people with disabilities and for handling grievances.

Equip for Equality attorneys Alan Goldstein and Amy Peterson have been working on behalf of the Lyonses since the complaint was filed in 2006.

"We hope this sends a positive message to other school districts they need to be concerned of accessibility needs of not just students but parents and family members," Goldstein said.

Lyons, a former reporter and journalism adjunct professor, and his wife were reluctant to take legal action, fearing retaliation against Becky and their son Matt, who graduated in 2006 and 2003, respectively.

They waited until Becky's senior year to file the complaint, following seven years of more informal - and ineffective - measures.

"I tried to be diplomatic," Christine Lyons said of the phone calls, meetings and letters. "We trusted they would correct these things, but promises were never kept."
District 211 maintains it was compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. By law, facilities built before then are only required to provide program access, not make structural changes. Goldstein calls that a horrible loophole.

In a prepared statement, District 211 said it "acknowledges that the original facilities, while compliant with the law, sometimes presented challenges to people, and we are pleased that all of the new classrooms, labs, and surrounding areas promote participation by all of our students and community members."

Mike Lyons resents the district's assertion it was compliant. He can list a dozen incidents that he says caused him to be humiliated, and even endangered, such as the time he became trapped on the second floor for 45 minutes following a performance in the auditorium while his wife searched for an employee with keys to the elevator and fire door.

And now he laughs about the difficulties he faced in meeting with Conant officials about his dyslexic daughter's own special needs: Ironically, the school's special education department was then accessible only by stairs.

"It just shows their sensitivity was totally delusional," he said.

The changes are long overdue, according to 1993 Conant graduate Chris Kutsch, who broke his neck during his sophomore year.

In order to continue computer-aided drafting classes, Kutsch was bused daily to Palatine High School, home to a program for physically disabled students. Conant's lab was up a flight of stairs and inaccessible to Kutsch's wheelchair.

He and his mom Diane fought to keep him at Conant despite the district's recommendation he transfer.

"Palatine does great things for those kids, but I was already established at Conant and needed those friends for support," said Chris Kutsch, now 34 and living in Florida.

Moving forward, Christine Lyons hopes the district will form a panel that includes disabled community members in order to regularly review accessibility needs.

Mike Lyons also hopes people with disabilities will feel comfortable enough to start showing up at events beyond graduation. The days of people being carried up stairs in their wheelchairs are over, he said.

"People tend to stay away because they don't want to embarrass their children," Mike said. "Now they don't have to be."