Metropolis: Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Jon Peters and his son, Sam, do a little studying at home. (Photo by Vishal Malhotra)
Fighting for an Education

Parents say Texas school districts are routinely denying needed services to autistic kids.


Two months ago Jon and Jessica Peters finally declared victory. They’d fought to get the Fort Worth school district to provide more educational services for their 3-year-old son, Sam, who’s autistic.

An Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) committee, set up for cases like Sam’s, had ruled initially that his only disability was a speech disorder, despite diagnoses of autism from his pediatrician and doctors at Early Child Intervention of Tarrant County. But the Peterses stood their ground, demanded another review, and finally, in July, got what they were seeking. Although the district still didn’t accept the autism diagnosis, members of the admissions committee agreed that Sam would receive more therapy and be placed in a classroom with no more than 10 students and with a teacher’s aide as well as a special-ed teacher. Sam would spend increasing amounts of time in a regular pre-K class, the Peterses were told, as he adapted.

“I can’t tell you how happy, relieved, exhausted, and hopeful I am right now,” Jessica Peters said in an e-mail in July. “Everything we wanted for Sam we now have, on paper, signed off on by the FWISD.”

But the celebration was short-lived. At an August open house, Sam’s teacher told Jessica that there would be closer to 20 students in the classroom, virtually guaranteeing Sam would not receive close one-on-one instruction. The teacher said she didn’t know when Sam could start joining regular classes. Things went downhill from there, until Jon and Jessica decided to withdraw Sam from the district.

The Peters family’s story didn’t surprise Laura Ruede. She fought a similar battle with the Fort Worth district years ago, trying to get the education she felt her autistic daughter needed. She believes that only the intervention of a local member of Congress changed the district’s stance.

In fact, families of autistic kids across Texas have come together in a networking group to share concerns and advice — and they’re finding that the problems extend far beyond the Fort Worth district. Ruede and other parents of special-needs kids say that many districts in Texas have resisted providing the educational services they are required by law to offer — and that some districts have gone so far as to coach administrators on how to avoid having to provide such services. Ruede said some parents even believe that school administrators share “enemies lists” of parents who fight for services and rights for their children.

One mom, who asked that her name not be used, told Fort Worth Weekly that, after she requested court mediation and a due process hearing with one North Texas school district over its refusal to provide special services to her autistic daughter, a Child Protective Services officer contacted her. The officer was investigating an allegation of abuse, specifically that she was giving her daughter medication to make the girl appear autistic. She said that documents provided to her — mistakenly — by CPS show that it was a school worker who contacted the agency, just two days after she requested the mediation. The incident involving her family took place several years ago, she said, but other parents have told her that the practice of calling CPS is still one of the tactics used against them if they fight for their kids.

In 1975 Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, noting that “the special educational needs of children with disabilities were not being fully met.” More than 20 years later, after a review found that educational services to such kids were still lagging, Congress tried again. In 1997 it passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, to “meet developmental goals and, to the maximum extent possible, those challenging expectations that have been established for all children.” The express intent of the law was to make sure that the rights of children with disabilities, and the rights of their parents, were protected.

Not surprisingly, special services carry higher price tags — a powerful impetus for Texas public schools, always strapped for cash, to strictly limit the extras they provide for kids with disabilities. The state provides increased funding for special-needs students, and the IDEA act also carries federal funding. However, parents say they have no doubt that those funding sources fall short of covering the costs of special teachers, equipment, extra staffers, and smaller classes.

Some parents believe that techniques for intimidating parents and denying services are part of the curriculum at seminars put on by the Texas Association of School Boards.

Ruede cited one conference two years ago, which was taught in part by members of the Texas-based law firm of Henslee, Fowler, Hepworth, and Schwartz. Ruede said school personnel were trained to avoid giving services by avoiding labels like “autistic.”

Rhonda Barfield, a Fort Worth lawyer who works for Henslee, Fowler, Hepworth, and Schwartz, said the conferences her firm participates in are designed to teach districts how to conduct ARD meetings legally, not to teach intimidation.

“There is a lot of law to cover,” she said, noting that the legal definition of “educational need” is very involved. She insisted that, despite the requirements of federal guidelines, parents have a say in educational planning for their children.

“Any time a parent says or a report says, ‘My child is autistic,’ in terms of educational need, a very comprehensive autism assessment team is used,” she said.

Barfield said that the accusation of intimidation tactics being taught stems from misunderstanding by parents.” A lot of it is their perception,” she said. “What really happens may not be what is perceived.” She also said it is illegal for districts to retaliate against parents and that she hopes that that does not take place.

At the beginning of this school year, the Peterses had more problems than just fighting with the district over Sam’s class size and teachers. A miscommunication on opening day left Jessica scrambling around Sam’s school looking for him while he rode a bus around his neighborhood. And a little later, when the couple withdrew their son again, the paperwork they received from the district described Sam as a fifth-grade, English-as-a-second-language student, instead of a 3-year-old special-needs student.

“Jon and I had figured that maybe they’d withdrawn the wrong kid,” Jessica said, “and fifth-grade Spanish-speaking Sam Peters got turned away the next day.”

The Peterses have another ARD meeting scheduled this month with the Fort Worth district. This time they have even more documents and records showing that other specialists have determined that Sam falls within the definition of autistic.

Leslie James, Fort Worth’s assistant superintendent for student support services, said the paperwork on Sam’s withdrawal was the result of a clerical error. And he said that school officials had made a mistake if they promised the Peters family a specific class size.

“Usually people speak in generalities,” he said. “The size of any class is very fluid. It changes all the time.” James said the district has acted in good faith regarding Sam and other autistic students and that it will continue to do everything it can for all its students.

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