NYT on Fights Over Services for Schoolkids with Disabilities
"The sign outside Westport should say: 'Don't Move Here. We Don't Take Care of Special Ed,' " said Stanley Alintoff, a parent who said he has spent more than $100,000 challenging Westport's decision to revoke special accommodations his daughter was receiving because of a digestive disorder.
With an estimated 5.7 million children in the United States qualifying for special education, similar struggles are playing out around the country. Federal laws aimed at protecting the disabled entitle those who qualify to a free and "appropriate" education tailored to their needs. But the definition of "appropriate" differs from town to town, leaving much to quarrel about.
The battle is particularly intense in the suburbs, where wealthy, educated parents no longer see special education as a stigma or trap. They are pressing hard for services and accommodations to address their children's learning needs, from extra time on tests to tuition for private schools. But many suburban school districts are aggressively challenging some of the requests as indulgent interpretations of the law.
In Hamilton County, Tenn., for instance, school officials spent $2.2 million on lawyers and expert witnesses to avoid having to reimburse Maureen and Philip Deal the $60,000 annual cost of providing their autistic son, Zachary, with one-on-one behavioral training. Administrators warned that giving in could have made the district responsible for $10 million a year in services for other children. In December, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided largely with the parents. The district is reviewing its options.
In Calaveras County, Calif., the Bret Harte Union High School District fought so hard to block the claims of a student that Judge Oliver W. Wanger of United States District Court took 83 pages to berate the district's "hard-line position" and its law firm for "willfully and vexatiously" dragging out the case so long that the former student is now 24.
Similar battles are under way in Westport, a town of gracious homes and six- and seven-figure incomes, where both Mandarin Chinese and Latin will be taught next fall at the high school, remodeled recently at a cost of $76 million. Westport's school district has spent more than $2 million on legal fees and settlement costs in the last six years to fight parents' complaints that special education students get short shrift.