Monday, September 26, 2011
Paranoid or Prejudiced – Discrimination & Litigation a Tale of Two Schools
“I was so frustrated it didn’t make any sense and it was unfair, it was discrimination!.
How could our kids attend magnet schools, which are open to all children, if transportation was not an option for them? The district had effectively made it impossible for kids with issues like Nicky to attend the magnet schools – by restricting access.”
I've heard stories for years detailing how middle school inclusion failed because our kids became outcasts under the academic and social pressures in middle school, and how success depends on the attitudes of the administrator in charge of special ed, which we never control. That said, leaving the quasi safe environment of elementary school for middle school, was not a change I welcomed. I took middle school seriously, and I applied to a small K-12 magnet school from our districts “Choice’s” program and a small learning community (recommended by his IEP Team) at our local middle school. In reality the challenges I encountered were not the one’s I was told about, but being emotionally prepared for an uphill ride helped.
Five months of unwelcoming conversations, requests for new documents and assorted problems delaying the processing of his application with our local school - ended with this voice mail from an administrator “Do you really think this program would be good for Nicholas and the other 31 students in the class?”, left on the last day of school without a return phone number! Instead of ignoring me, we could have spent the last 5 months addressing their concerns about how to successfully include Nicky. Any doors I had left open for the possibility the school was simply disorganized, or the unreturned calls and requests for unusual paperwork were not about him, were closed after hearing that message.
I was getting really discouraged. Thank goodness I took my own advice and applied to more than one school, because the other school called and offered a slot to Nicky. I was so happy, a school called us, they wanted him. I felt like Sally Field in her “You Like Me” Oscar speech. I was so excited I immediately took the spot.
School started, I began requesting an IEP to address Nicky’s transportation needs. 1 month into the school year I was still spending 3 hours a day driving Nicky back and forth. Finally, I received a letter saying the school district would not provide transportation. I thought Magnet schools were required by law to provide transportation for attendee’s living outside a certain radius. I was happy to put Nicky on one of the bus’s provided for other students; he just couldn’t ride safely without an aid. I was so frustrated it didn’t make any since and it was unfair. How could our kids attend the magnet schools which are open to all children, if transportation was not an option for them? By refusing to provide health and safety supports to enable Nicky to ride the bus, the district had effectively made it impossible for kids with issues like Nicky to attend the school – by restricting access. I wanted to believe it was just the result of confusion; It must be me, I wasn’t speaking to the right people. My mission ended when an administrator was directed to explain the districts position to me. Our 20 minute conversation came down to this "The district was not required to provide Nicky with support to ride the bus. If I wished for him to remain at this school I could drive him." I literally broke into tears and asked if she understood what she was saying to me, in effect our kids could not go to the magnet schools unless their parents could drive them, and how many parents could do that?. I’m spending 3 hours a day driving him. How long could I do it? She then asked why he wasn’t at his local school, teary eyed I replied “They didn’t want him”. I pressed on thinking I could say something, she could grab onto that would change the direction of the conversation, and she simply said “You choose this school, so you can choose to drive him or not. It’s up to you but our decision is final”.
Beat up, outraged and discouraged I found a lawyer who filed a discrimination complaint with the Office of Civil Rights, asserting that the district discriminated against Nicholas on the basis of his disability because it failed to provide him with the necessary accommodations he requires in order the access his magnet school bus transportation both to and from his public school program and to and from school sanctioned fields trips. Almost two years later it was determined that the district policy did discriminate against Nicholas and he was provided with transportation and supports.
The number of unfair things that happen to our kids defy comprehension or reason, they could keep me in angry, sad and tied up in knots and battles everyday if I let. Years into this journey I’ve learned those are not the feelings I want consuming me. So I pick my battles, in an effort to leave room to be happy and live our life. Looking back, it’s pretty clear things worked out exactly how there were supposed to, and this go round I fought the right battle. Nicky loves his school and it’s a wonderful fit for him. Because it’s K-12 he’ll be there through HS. If I had battled to get Nicky into our local school, he would have been in a school where he wasn’t wanted, and we would been looking for a HS next year, and we would not have fought a battle that could help so many kids.
Thanks Nicholas for another opportunity to make a difference.
A very special thanks to our attorney Jodi Ossen Bynder of Newman Aaronson and Vanaman. If anyone has any specific questions about the complaint filed with the Office of Civil rights. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org