I was beginning to become recognized as a resource for all parents of children with disabilities. In my interactions with parents I learned about a wide variety of disabilities and how they impacted children’s access to an education. ( Specific Disabilities ) The procedural process remained the same for all of them and I found myself answering the same questions over and over again. In all my years of advocacy the one procedural safeguard I tried always to avoid was due process complaints. (The Due Process Complaint)
Even when you win you lose. You lose time, energy, trust, and money. I have seen the toll due process hearings have on both sides and it is horrible.
The parent’s attorneys only get paid if they prevail – but then what follows is an exhaustive appeal process to get the money (if they ever do). Now parents can get counter sued if they don’t prevail, so they risk losing everything if they don’t win. (Procedural Safeguards – Due Process Hearings) The school district loses the trust of the parent and also loses countless staff hours in court. The only persons who benefits from this type of prolonged conflict are school board attorneys who get paid as they play. As long as the conflict continues, they are the ones advising the school board to go ahead and litigate.
The mom of the child whose story I am about to share with you summed it up perfectly from a parent perspective, “I would rather chew broken glass at an IRS tax audit than to go due process but I have no choice”.
My first experience with litigation involved a young girl that had undergone some brain surgeries to remove tumors. She was extremely bright but required some assistance and specially designed instruction, and the parents were requesting regular class placement with a classroom aid.
Both parents were teachers in the district yet were forced to initiate due process to get their daughter’s needs met. I attended IEP meetings with the parent and her attorney offering as much support as I could muster. I had embarrassed the district with my recent coup of the OCR decision forcing them to create and serve. It was said that this time they were going to teach “those parents” a lesson. They postured for litigation and voted to support the attorney’s recommendation to bring in a national special education attorney whose law firm represented school districts exclusively against parents. Both sides squared off for battle and the first hearing was initiated. When the smoke had cleared the parents had prevailed. The administrative law judge ordered the young girl to be provided with a classroom aid and placed in a regular education classroom. They had won and the conflict was finished, or so it seemed. The district complied and provided the services but immediately appealed the ruling.
Round two ensued with great bravado and sword rattling on behalf of the district. Another hearing was held and I testified on behalf of the parents regarding their numerous attempts to avoid these hearings and support the schools their daughter attended. Again the parents prevailed. It was not the parents who were prolonging the conflict.
A new charter school was opening up in their neighborhood and the parents became involved in the initial process to open the doors for the new school year. (Florida Charter School Facts) In this instance the charter school opted to provide the special education services themselves and not contract for services with the district. The child, now becoming a young lady, was enrolled in the charter school and an IEP was written. For the next school year she would be at this charter school that embraced the parent’s involvement. The district once again appealed the decision but with the “stay put” provisions of IDEA she would remain where she was for the time being. The district lost the appeal.
She was doing well at the charter school and the parents had a brief respite until her IEP would expire at the end of the year. The IEP expiration date was approaching and both sides began to posture for court again and had started the process for initiating another hearing. I convinced the mom to ask the charter school to have the IEP meeting on a Saturday. We met at the charter school making sure we had the required people and wrote the IEP on three ring notebook paper. (The IEP Team) We were very careful to make sure all the required components of the IEP were included. ( Contents of the IEP ) Signatures were obtained and her placement at the charter school remained for the next year. The three ring notebook paper IEP was presented by the parent’s attorney as binding and having a valid IEP in place for another school year and all due process requests were withdrawn. They had another successful year at the charter school. Tragically the end result of all this stress and conflict destroyed the family and they ended up moving away.
I was livid with the district and the amount of my tax dollars I suspected were being paid out not only to the district’s attorney but also the outside hired gun law firm. I made a public records request for all the invoices paid to the law firm. (Freedom of Information Act) I was told that I could have the records but that it would cost me three hundred dollars for them to produce the copies. I had noticed during the numerous school board meetings I had attended that whenever money was being discussed there was a group of elderly gentlemen who would always step forward and oppose the expenditures. They were called the Naples Taxpayer Action Group. I approached them with my concerns. They said if I joined their group and paid my twenty dollar membership fee that they would pay to have the records pulled. That is how I became the youngest member of the taxpayer action group. They called me The Kid.
When the records were produced and reviewed it was revealed that, to date, the district had spent three and one half million dollars in attorney fees litigating the provision of a ten dollar an hour classroom assistant. I immediately called the media and shared this information.
The public may not have understood this child’s disability and they may not have understood federal disability law but they did understand three and a half million dollars in taxpayer money and demanded answers as to who was accountable.
The outside attorney was handed his walking papers and numerous administrators from the superintendent down were replaced. Several of the sitting school board members either decided not to run again or were not reelected. Our school district began to look at other means to resolve issues being collaborative and proactive rather than adversarial and reactive.