Special Ed & School Districts: Parents Struggle On To Get Their Kids What They Need

“Parents Battle School Districts for Special Support” reads a headline in last week’s New York Times about two San Francisco parents’ struggle with the public school district to get appropriate educational services for their young autistic child, Sebastian. Caroline Barwick and her husband, Russell Huerta, sued the school district. Barwick and Huerta are, says the New York Times, “part of a growing number of parents of special-needs children who are battling the school district over federally mandated support.” With the SF school district facing a budget shortfall of $25 million — and with the educational services for an autistic child potentially costing in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — much was indeed at stake.

Much has long been at stake when it comes to educating kids with disabilities: Parents battling the school district for special support happens everyday, in communities all across the country. My son Charlie is 14 years old; he has received special education services since he was 2 years old and just diagnosed with autism in St. Paul, Minnesota. Charlie has always been in special education classes. Up until he was in middle school, he was mostly placed in classrooms that were specifically for autistic students as they relied on a teaching methodology called Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which is based on the principles of behavior therapy.

It is thanks to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that Charlie and children with disabilities are entitled to a “free and appropriate” public education in what is called the “least restricted environment.” That is, school districts are required to “educate students with disabilities in regular classrooms with their nondisabled peers, in the school they would attend if not disabled, to the maximum extent appropriate,” according to the special education law and advocacy site Wrightslaw.

While we strove to keep Charlie in as “least restricted” a setting as possible in autism classrooms, we came to realize that, for him, placement in a “more restricted” setting — a county autism center — when he entered adolescence was a more “appropriate” environment for him to learn in. This decision was only made after some increasingly difficult experiences for Charlie in a special education classroom in a public middle school with some 1,800 students. Aware of the dramatic increase in students diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, schools have sought to create in-district programs and hire their own consultants as such arrangement tend to be cheaper than (1) sending a child out of district and (2) fighting a legal battle, should parents decide they have no choice but to seek due process and sue a school district to obtain the education their child needs.

Barwick and Huerta indeed sued on behalf of Sebastian after a frustrating back-and-forth with the SF school district that sounds all to familiar to me:

Before meeting with the district, Ms. Barwick, who is an insurance underwriter, and Mr. Huerta, who works for a software start-up, asked three times to visit the district’s programs for children with autism but said their requests were ignored. At the October meeting, they said, district representatives dominated the discussion and failed to make a formal placement offer, as mandated by federal law and the California education code.

In subsequent mediations, the district was represented by the Southern California law firm of Leal and Trejo, which advocated for the district’s proposal: less than half the weekly therapy hours recommended by outside experts and a classroom assignment in which Sebastian would not be accompanied by an aide.

Ms. Barwick described the district’s offer as: “Your kid has autism, you get package A.”

…Negotiations dragged on for months as Ms. Barwick’s and Mr. Huerta’s expenses mounted. Mr. [Michael] Zatopa, their lawyer, said the case was similar to others in which Leal and Trejo showed an uncommon willingness to litigate even when the evidence appeared to be stacked high against the district

In our experience dealing with school districts in Minnesota, Missouri and New Jersey, parents are always told that their child’s individual needs are being taken into account. But too often, one realizes one is just getting “package A, B or C”; once we even found that a draft copy of Charlie’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) contained the name “Raymond” — that’s the name of the autistic character Dustin Hoffman played in the film Rain Man.

Happily, Barwick and Huerta prevailed in their case and the San Francisco school district was ordered to reimburse them for about $55,000 for Sebastian’s therapy and education during the seven-month dispute. It’s alarming, though, to see that the SF school district hired the southern California-based Leal and Trejo, a self-described “aggressive law firm with a client-centered focus” rather than relying on the school district’s own lawyers. One wishes that the school district had spent all the dollars it must have paid/be paying Leal and Trejo on educating children — isn’t that what school districts are supposed to do?


Photo of a child using the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS) by jennratonmort


jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago

Parents need to be in the front lines for their children. Join the PTA. Join Advocates for Children. Go to meetings.

Participate in everything that effects your child's education and well being. Become an authority on what is available to help your child.

Thanks Kristina for showing us it can be done and by helping us keep up to date.

Carole F.
Carole f8 years ago

ALL children are entitled, by law, to a free and appropriate education. Not all schools are able to provide what autistic (or other children with a disability) children require. ,But they SHOULD be. However, parents need to always advocate, realistically, for what is best for their child. Some parents want their children to be with non-disabled peers for the entire school day. For some, this is counterproductive. They may be a "part" of the socialization, but just how much is the children understanding and learning?
Each child is different and their IEP's should reflect that individualization and their personal needs for success. Parents are an important member of the team, but should come to the table with realistic goals and objectives. It makes the child's school experience more meaningful and successful. Special educators live for their students and their ability to succeed and become contributing members of society; however each child is able to achieve this.

Mary Lou Pearce
Mary Lou Pearce8 years ago

Every child has a right BY LAW to be educated and attend school here in Canada. Whatever needs to be done to educate a child should be done. Educational assistants are needed and as many as the children need.

Julia W.
Julia W8 years ago

Before we moved to Upstate New York, our family was living in San Francisco and my husband was teaching in a San Francisco public high school.

While I often miss San Francisco, I am very, very glad my daughter never attended school there. She is autistic, something her teachers and our friends saw immediately here in NY, but that no one saw -- or told me or my husband about --in San Francisco.

I hope Sebastian and his peers get the educations they need and are required to get by federal and and state laws.

Delanee Ramdon
.8 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Delanee Ramdon
.8 years ago

Great article.

Paula Hurley
.8 years ago

Education of everyone should be our #1 priority

Empress Ginger
Ginger Strivelli8 years ago

Nance , you have a disability called lack of compassion. I suggest treatment, maybe some therapy...or ask the wizard for a heart, at least.

Norma V.
Norma Villarreal8 years ago

With the state of education today, all our children are losing out.

Elizabeth K.
Elizabeth K8 years ago

Nance N.

and if the parents don't have "special" money, do we end up with a nation full of children that never had a chance?

Your statement was arrogant and uninformed.