Thursday, February 21, 2013

“I Sued My Son’s School for an IEP.” Interview with a Courageous Mom

Recently a follower shared her story with me about suing her school system to get an IEP for her son. She shared that her school denied her son an IEP because he was (academically) performing above grade level, therefore he didn’t qualify for any services. 

I know that her story is not unique and some of you may find yourself considering this same legal action with your school. Thankfully this courageous mom has allowed me to do an interview with her with hopes of helping others. I think you’ll find it very eye opening!

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1. What grade is your child in and what is your child’s diagnosis?
My son is in third grade and has multiple diagnoses. ADHD-combined type, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, SMD Severe Mood Dysregulation, Nonverbal Learning Disorder. (SMD will be in the DSM-V, it's basically bipolar without mania...)

2. What type of school does your child attend?

3. What challenge did you face with your child’s school?
In kindergarten I knew there was something not right. He was not behaving like himself. He was sometimes smacking other children, he was fidgety, he was becoming upset when it was time to go to school. I asked for a meeting with the principal and his teacher. The principal actually told me to medicate him. In those words. The teacher said he was fun and loving, but had no self-regulation and that he was taking 20% of her time (she had 25 students).

First grade was awful at first. His teacher would not listen to me when I tried to explain that silliness is a clue to his being nervous, she said "he's one of the least nervous children I've ever met!" She was a yeller and one time while screaming in his face while holding him by the shoulders (this was reported to me by another adult who was present at the time) he kicked her in the shin so she'd let go. Needless to say, that was not OK, but she then sent a threatening email to my husband and I, explaining that she'd called the non-emergency number for the police and that if our son ever touched her again, she'd be pressing charges for assault. She didn't include the principal on this, and even after this, getting our son switched to another class was like pulling teeth. I also saw this teacher ask him for a hug one time and I calmly stopped him and told him he wasn't allowed to touch her.

His next first grade teacher was wonderful. She was nurturing and helped him to see what his strengths were and to communicate clearly and calmly with him. He finished out the year with some bumps, but much more successfully. Second grade was rough. His teacher didn't like him. She wasn't nurturing. She didn't dislike him, but she wasn't willing to do what was necessary to help him succeed. At one point in second grade there was a long-term substitute teacher coming in. On the first day with her, my son tried to use a flash get a drink of water because he was getting overwhelmed and needed a break. She said no. He didn't know what to do, but had been told that if he ever needed help he could go to the principal. So he left the room to go to the principal and the long term sub tried to direct him back into the classroom, putting her hands on his shoulders. He hit her to get her to let go of him.He is very sensitive to touch when he's agitated/anxious, and the front of his 504 plan had a "do not touch him when he's agitated" note on it. I asked why she'd touched him or not followed his 504 plan and the school said they'd forgotten to let her know that he had a 504 plan. So they suspended him even though they violated the law by not communicating the plan to the teacher. I appealed it and the response of the school board was that our school had been "too easy on him and should have suspended him for more days".

In second grade I received a phone call from two of his friends who said they spent every day at recess trying to keep two boys from harassing him. I asked the school about it and their response was "yeah, we've been trying to get them to leave him alone for six months...sometimes we have to get in their faces, but they just won't leave him alone." I filled out formal bullying paperwork. They left my child alone after that, but I was harassed by the other children's parents, very verbally for months.

The principal of the school his first two years was beyond negligent. She actually told me one time, "I will not call you anymore. I don't like to speak to you about your son because you are always so sad when things are hard for him." She put that in writing! The new principal after that was much better, but still out of his league when trying to help my son. He really did go out of his way to try to help my son...and they built a great rapport, but it wasn't enough.

In kindergarten, at the end of the year, I requested a 504 plan. I was denied. In first grade, I requested an IEP and got a 504 (only after a letter, written by an attorney stated my son's needs clearly). The 504 was not working. I requested an IEP in 2nd grade. I was denied but they said they'd think about it. The problem is that my son is academically gifted...working more than two grade levels above his current grade. So the school system said that because his disability wasn't impacting his education (evident by the fact that he was not lagging academically) he didn't qualify for an IEP.

Throughout all of this, we were denied Occupational Therapy because he didn't have an IEP. He was having a hard time with the mechanics of writing, which would often devolve into him refusing to write or him having a tantrum/panic attack. So we paid, out of pocket, for private OT weekly for two years.

**I am in no way excusing my son's slapping or hitting anyone, ever. I include it to be absolutely honest, but want to be clear that we did not excuse it in any instance, we just tried to mitigate the situations we knew were likely to result in a physical response from him.

4. How did this affect your child? 
He began to hate school. He had panic attacks. He became defensive and started to be angry all the time.

5. How did this affect you?
Every single day while he was at school, I would wait for the phone to ring. I literally would dread it. It was physically exhausting. When the phone rang, I would have to either go to the school with my now three year old twins or leave work (I work part time) to go talk with them. It was also so hard to walk the line of how to handle things with him. He'd hit someone at school, which in no way is OK. But the adults who were supposed to be helping him navigate situations that were hard for him had been negligent. How, as a parent, should I handle that? It led to a ton of stress and self-doubt.

7. What steps did you do before legal action?
I volunteered a full day each week at the school. I figured if I was there and able to lend a hand, maybe it would help. You can't change something if you're not willing to try to change it yourself, right? I spoke frankly, repeatedly, with the school and tried everything I could think of to help.

8. What was the straw that broke the camel’s back and made you seek legal action?
My son was enrolled in a study at the National Institutes of Health, and they looked at his school records and said that it was ridiculous that he didn't have an IEP. Then I received his standardized test scores/reports, his final report card, and his official end of school year commentary (from his teacher) unsealed, from the parent of another student who'd been told "you see her sometimes out of school, right? Can you give these to her?" The gross negligence of that one act put me over the edge.

6. What legal action did you take?
I hired a student rights attorney. We had an initial consultation where we took my son's school records with us so he could review them. He pointed out flagrant violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and violations of various county and state laws. He said we had a case to get our child an IEP and into a specialized program. He also recommended that we hire a Special Education Advocate to help us design the (presumed) IEP.

8. Was it class action or individual?

9. What steps did you take to accomplish the legal action?
We gave retainers to both our attorney and the Sp Ed Advocate and requested an IEP meeting, informing the school that we'd retained counsel.

8. What challenges did you face in taking legal action?
Personally, it made me horribly uncomfortable. I am naive in believing that if we all just do our part and act responsibly, we can work together to help one another. To have someone fighting and being caught in very contentious meetings where people were picking apart my son was excruciating.
Also, the school system then sent in their lawyers and they got ugly. Downright ugly...even told us that they were on staff and had unlimited access to their lawyers, did we have the same?

9. Did it cost you anything?
Overall we spent $17,000. That does not include the days we had to take off of our jobs to be at the multiple meetings. We are not rich.

10. How did the school respond to your legal action?
They pushed back. They said that the tests we'd had done (neuropsych, academic achievement) weren't sufficient. Never mind that the person who'd performed those tests was a Chief of the National Institutes of Mental Health. We'd asked them for testing for three years and been denied, but suddenly they wanted to do tests to see what our son was like. So we had to wait a few weeks for them to test our son. My son had panic attacks sometimes when going to school, but they said they could only do the tests at the school. He was so nervous and panicky before the two days of testing...which turned into five days of testing because they said he was so nervous they weren't sure he was performing according his potential.

11. Did the legal action cause a problem for your child at school? Did they treat him differently?
I was home schooling him at the time. Once I began legal proceedings, once that straw broke the camel's back, I decided he would never go back there.

12. What were the results of your legal action?
We got him an IEP. He is now in a program for children with emotional difficulties. It is not the program that we asked for him to be put in. It is working out well, but it is still like putting a square peg into a circle hole.

13. What were your feelings about the end result?
Overall I am happy that he is in a program that he doesn't dread going to each day. He is still not in the program that would most benefit him, but it is significantly better.

14. How has your child benefited from your legal action?
Honestly he knows there was a lawyer involved, but we didn't tell him any of the details of what was going on. He didn't need to know that the people who are supposed to be helping him to grow into a more well-rounded and better educated person were actually trying to work against him.
So he's benefited in that he's in a program that he doesn't dread each day. That he's around people who want him to succeed.

15. Were there any long standing changes at your school due to the legal steps you took?
We're not there anymore, but talking to many friends who still have kids there, the answer is sadly no.

14. If you had to, would you do it all over again?
Yes, but I would have done it much much earlier.

I just want to add that my son is in a school system that is often listed as the #1 public school system in the nation. We have stringent academic goals and great resources for children that are academically behind. It broke my heart that the ONLY emphasis in the system is academic. As long as kids are performing on level, academically, they are categorically denied services because if they're at grade level, it's said that their disabilities don't impact their education. Anyone who needs emotional help is just swept under the rug. Special education has been cut drastically over the past decade in our system and it is a shame. I have talked to so many other parents of children within our school system who have dealt with the same thing we have. So if it's the #1 system in the nation, that's just sad.

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Thank you so much for sharing your story, I admire your courage and dedication. Raising a child with mental health issues is hard enough, but to take on a school system that’s stacked with lawyers is incredible. Way to go mom!

If you have any questions for this mom, please leave them in the comment section below. She will answer them through email to me, then I will post them for her as a comment to keep her anonymous.


  1. Do you blog? that would be great to read.

    1. Answer from the mom in the interview:

      “I don't blog. I wish I had time, but have never gotten into it.”

  2. Good for them for fighting, and thank you for that interview. I got to the $17000 figure and my heart sank. We live in a very expensive area (not by choice, really, this is where the work was) and the idea of finding that much or even half that much to fight our own battles... sigh.

    But I am glad that at least her son does not dread going to school. I also hope that means that when the phone rings the mom and dad's stomachs do not plummet. My wife and I are WAY too familiar with that sensation.

    This hit a lot of chords... many of them in a minor key.

  3. I am an adult with bipolar and when highly anxious I too do not want to be touched suddenly. A waitress once came from behind me and touched my shoulder and I just burst into tears. But I can relate to your son's knee jerk reaction to kick if someone touches him when he is in a state of panic. I feel for your family because this is only the start. Medication has been my saving grace so I hope one day your son will find something that works to help him manage a more calm and productive life.

  4. You should be a public school teacher, all of you. Your views and expectations ate totally skewed. Homeschooling would be better for you, teachers can't nurture your child and teach a full classroom, nor should they be expected to.

    1. Well... I have many family members that are public school teachers... and first of all.. DO NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES, grab my child by the shoulders, especially when he has an 504 with instructions not to. This mother tried to have him tested... they refused. I have a daughter who is struggling greatly in school right now, and no, I don't expect a lot of "nurturing" but at least some compassion... the school districts don't want to test because of money... they don't want to pay for the IEP... These kids deserve a good education just as much as those that are "normal" if there is any such thing. If you are a school teacher, I feel sorry for the kids you teach. They just keep passing them on and wonder why we have such issues in our country...

    2. I do teach and I do nurture every child everyday. You have a chance to leave a mark on each child you encounter. It's up to teacher what type of Mark your leaving. Far too many leave wounds, and create an atmosphere of negativity towards those who they can't comprehend. I see it everyday with many colleagues. I think about how I can EXPOSE their abusive behavior.

    3. should also have made a 504 complaint with the office of civil rights - R

  5. The system is really what is messed up. I think this mother was justified in her lawsuit, although I believe it could have been settled much more easily if the district had cooperated with her. There are a lot, and I mean a lot of people, however, who are suing both school districts and individual teachers where it is not justified. There are also a lot of parents who think being full included in regular classrooms is what is best for their child, but are not in touch with the reality of the situation. And then their are a whole lot of regular ed kids being left behind because of sped kids demanding too much time and paperwork from their teachers. The way she described this kid, seems to me like the program he is in now is just what he needed. Hopefully at some point, he can be mainstreamed back into regular ed, even if only for part of the day to help him develop those social skills he'll need as an adult, but for right now he's happy and learning. I just hope that congress will see the amount of frivolous lawsuits going on and will do something to make it a lot harder to sue a school or teacher. When a child is not receiving the education he needs, there should be a grievance process both reg ed and sped kids can go through to get their needs met. By the same token, there should be protections in place to prevent parents from suing teachers, or making it hard to teach the other students in their classrooms. You'll never hear of the parent of a regular ed student suing a sped students parents for preventing their children from receiving a proper education.