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Article of Interest - Inclusion

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Bridges4Kids LogoSpecial Ed Battle: Family Wins Case, Seeks Legal Fees From Monongalia County Schools
by Jennifer Scott-Heaslip, The Dominion Post, November 27, 2003
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Jim and Eleanor Green spend most of their evenings reading legal documents -- time taken away from reading storybooks to their two children.

The couple, whose 8-year-old daughter, Julie, has Down syndrome, is embroiled in a battle with the Monongalia County school system. The battle has cost both parties a combined $170,000. And a lot of time and energy.

It started in spring 2002 when the Greens disagreed with school officials, who attempted to increase Julie's time out of the regular classroom at Mountainview Elementary from 21 percent to 60 percent. Officials said Julie (who is mildly mentally retarded) needed a specialized environment to learn.

The Greens and school officials met several times to discuss the issue. The dispute was presented to an impartial hearing officer in October 2002, who ruled against the school system and decided that Julie would be educated in a regular classroom for the majority of her day.

Hearing officer James Gerl, a private lawyer from Lewisburg who is not involved in the Green case, said parents don't always use attorneys to present their case, but many do.

Hearings are "expensive for parents, but attorney fees are provided for you if you prevail," he said.

The Greens and school officials, however, are still battling over the Greens' $70,000 (and climbing) legal fees, which the school system has to date not agreed to fully repay. A tentative settlement, proposed in early November, has yet to be signed by Monongalia County Schools, Jim Green said.

School officials declined to speak specifically about the Green case and the legal fees, citing the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

So how did one little girl's education turn into a battle of the lawyers?

The Greens wanted Julie -- who now attends North Elementary -- to learn almost entirely with her peers.

"They just basically said no, it can't be done," Eleanor Green said.

Director of Special Education DeEdra Lundeen contends some things can't be taught in the regular classroom environment, even with supports and modifications.

Monongalia County Schools supports keeping children in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible, she said. But there are times when children with special needs require an environment other than the regular classroom to help them learn.

"If I have to make a choice between what we feel is right for a child versus what a parent wants, then (what is right for the child) is the way it will go," Lundeen said.

And so began the litigation.

Root of the problem

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) states that special education students must make meaningful progress in their own goals and objectives.

The law also states that special-needs students must get their education in a classroom with non-disabled peers to the maximum extent possible. It mandates that a "continuum of services" be provided by the school system.

The continuum of services is a list of placement options that a school system must offer a student with special needs: ranging from teaching in a special school, to time out of the classroom part of the day, to full time in a regular classroom.

The Greens said they know Julie probably won't be a rocket scientist, but they want her to be educated as much as possible in her classroom -- which IDEA mandates whenever possible.

The school system, however, wanted to pull her out of her classroom for part of her day, consistent with IDEA's continuum of services.

The question first arose in the spring 2002 when the Greens and school officials began developing an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for Julie as she prepared to enter first grade at Mountainview Elementary.

All students identified as "exceptional" (special needs) are educated according to this personalized plan, which lists skills and educational goals and the support needed to reach those goals.

Julie's verbal and receptive language skills are at the proper grade level. She falls behind traditional student standards in math, language arts and speech.

During Julie's spring and summer 2002 IEP meetings, school officials decided it was best to increase -- from 21 percent to 60 percent -- the amount of time she would spend in a specialized classroom.

"It was apparent to us that the school system was focusing heavily on what they termed "functional" skills such as crossing a street, not talking to strangers, etc., versus true 'academic' skills like reading and math," Jim Green said.

"Through the spring and summer we did a lot of research and found that children with Down syndrome could and do learn to read and write. Some earn full academic degrees from high school, gain drivers licenses, and go on to academic courses in colleges."

School officials wouldn't talk about the specifics of the Green case, but they did discuss special education in general. Hearing officer Janet Sheehan also declined to comment on the case.

More then 2,000 children qualify this year as special education students in Monongalia County, and about 600 of those are gifted.

The cost of special education

The Monongalia County Schools special education department receives money from three sources: county funds, state and federal grants and Medicaid reimbursements. For the 2002-2003 school year, the department received $10.29 million in county funds and $1 .49 million in state and federal grants.

Lundeen said the county receives more then $300,000 a year in Medicaid reimbursements, which are paid for services rendered to students by personnel such as occupational and physical therapists.

The June 2003-June 2004 fiscal year budget allocates $33,144,290 for regular elementary and secondary education, salaries, substitutes, employee benefits, classroom supplies, equipment and miscellaneous expenses.

Monongalia County Schools had a first-month enrollment of 10,266 students, of which 2,000 are special education students.

The 8,266 regular education students are funded at $4,009 per student.

Special education students are funded at $5,262 per student. The special education department gets $10,525,890 for its 2,000 students.

The right to dispute

Only a handful of Mon parents dispute their children's IEP's, Lundeen said, and there have been five due process hearings in the past five years, two from the same parents.

The Greens have had six IEP meetings in three months this year. Monongalia County schools had a court reporter and lawyer present at all of those meetings, and the Greens had their attorney present for five.

That's what happens when you challenge the status quo, say the Greens. They view special education as a service -- not a place -- and argue that all children learn differently but can be educated in the same room.

"She can't get the same (lesson) delivered in the same way," Jim Green said. "But that's why the law requires modifications, aides and supports."

Julie took her first spelling and math tests in a regular classroom this year. The tests were modified to suit her abilities -- she had to spell three words instead of 10 on the spelling test and typed her answers into a computer due to weak handwriting s kills.

Students in any given classroom aren't being taught at the same level, Jim Green said. Some children need help with reading, some with math, and at North Elementary, where more then 25 native languages are spoken, some need help learning English.

Feeling the pinch

One year and $70,000 later, the Greens are feeling more then financial strain.

They have used their savings to pay $2,000 a month in legal fees, and recently bought a house in another school district because they no longer felt welcome at Mountainview, where Julie attended kindergarten.

The Greens are now fighting for reimbursement of their attorney fees. The school system's attorneys have been paid every month through August, although the Green's attorney has not been reimbursed. Even worse, the Greens say, the school board is still paying to fight them.

Jim Green works two jobs, one as deputy branch chief, technology branch, at NIOSH in Morgantown, the other as president and primary engineer for Air Vehicle Concepts Inc. He's used all of his vacation days to litigate and attend meetings.

A tentative settlement for an undisclosed amount was approved by both sides in early November, although the school system has yet to sign the agreement, Jim Green said. "There is no doubt that we have been traumatized beyond anything we could have imagined, yet it still continues."

The school system has paid $99,943 in attorney fees from August 2002 to August 2003 for the case. The four-day hearing alone cost it more then $5,000.

Mon's legal fees for special education hearings and other matters totaled $345,865 from fiscal years 1999-2003. In 2002-2003, the year of the Green's hearing, the school system paid $124,000 in legal fees.

Legal fees still mount. All interaction between the school system and the Greens has transpired with lawyers since the hearing, the Greens said. Even parent-teacher conferences have been tape recorded.

Glossary of special education terms:

Due process hearing: A formal procedure to resolve conflicts between a school system and parents about a student's special education services. A state-selected impartial hearing officer makes a ruling.

Inclusion: Educating students with disabilities in regular classrooms -- to the extent possible, with support and services provided as much as possible.

Individualized education plan (IEP): A document that lists a special education student's needs, performance level, educational goals and objectives and services required.

Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: A federal law requiring public school systems to provide a free, appropriate public education for students with disabilities up to age 21.


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