The day finally arrived when I went to the mailbox and peered inside to find a fat letter with a return address from the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) in Atlanta, Georgia. I opened it and began to read. OCR had found in their investigation that our school district had violated the civil rights of students with disabilities by requiring them to spend significantly longer times riding school buses than their non-disabled peers. They continued to state that all bus rides for all children with disabilities would need to be shortened to not exceed the longest time spent on a bus by their nondisabled peers. This meant bussing the children was no longer an option, a program had to be created, and my son and nineteen other children would be served in the county in which they lived. For many of the children this would be the first time they would go to school here. ( Section 504 Questions & Answers )
It was shared with me later in a conversation with the head of pupil services that, “We knew we were noncompliant, it was simply a matter of economics.” And I was asked in a Foghorn Leghorn southern drawl – “Are you happy now, Mr. Hawke? Are you happy now”? This same gentlemen and I would have numerous conversations after that as I began to challenge policies. Each time I was asked “Are you happy now?” my standard response was always, ”When you are in full compliance with federal and state laws I will be.” I have several quotes from the same administrator that still make me chuckle today. But the one that set the tone for what I would need to do was delivered in that same southern drawl – “Well we don’t necessarily agree with federal law”.
The headline in the newspaper the next day read “Feds Knock Collier Special Ed.” When the story was published it encouraged other parents to begin to question the validity of things they had been told regarding services for their children. I began to request copies of district policies and carefully read what was written for consistency with state and federal law. I read the entire Florida Department of Education State Rule book and our school districts Special Programs and Procedures manual or SPP. ( ESE Policies and Procedures) I printed out Appendix A to IDEA and took it with me everywhere I went reading it until I knew it front to back. (Wrightslaw – Appendix A )
It was time to go back to the School Board and not ask when but how they were going to serve this group of children by the first day of school. Now that we had established that economics was not a factor in determining the provision of services the first expenditure was a couple of new school buses to reduce the bus times for all the children to fit into the required equal time as ordered by the complaint resolution.
I went back to the IEP table and my son was placed back in the neighborhood school and in the regular education classroom with the use of supplementary aids and services (NICHCY Supplimentary Aids and Services). He was provided additional time with a teacher of the hearing impaired (NICHCY Special Education). He was once again fitted with a wireless FM system and a set of hearing aids to wear at school. (NICHCY Related Services) The one additional service provided him that hadn’t been provided previously was a person to assist him in the class environment with understanding instruction when the teacher of the hearing impaired was not in the classroom. She was given the title of oral interpreter and took notes and clarified the spoken instruction if and when he needed it. She remained with him from third grade until high school. We did request he repeat third grade to give him that reading and language foundation he would need to move forward. It was settled and documented in his IEP from services and placement, and for the first time when I agreed at an IEP meeting I did understand everything that had taken place when I left the table. The transformation was complete. I had become an informed parent and my son’s advocate.
School was scheduled to start in a couple of weeks and in preparation I purchased a brand new bicycle of his choice for him to ride to school with his friends. The press continued to follow the story and he appeared on the front page of the paper again, sitting astride his new bike stating that this would be his new transportation to school now. I can remember walking him through the school doors the first day of school to his classroom to find the teacher had cut that picture and story out and put it up in her classroom for all his classmates to see. My son had returned to his neighborhood school and was in the Least Restrictive Environment. ( Wrightslaw – Least Restrictive Environment ) David had smote Goliath and prevailed. I now turned my attention to making sure the other children were placed; and in my new job capacity offered assistance to other parents by teaching them what I had learned and used to help my own son. Our parent group continued to attend School Board meetings to monitor the implementation of the new program for the hearing impaired. At the same time fueled by our success and constant presence other parents began to come forward with issues for their own children.