A few years ago, I met a woman who had spent years battling APS over her nephew’s education or, in her view and the one ultimately embraced by the courts, his lack of education.
What struck me in listening to the woman, a military veteran who was not easily intimidated, is that Atlanta ended up spending likely close to a million dollars in legal fees that it could have spent on the young man’s schooling.
I feel the same way reading this shocking AJC story, which describes a situation not unique to Atlanta. I personally know families who have resorted to court to battle for their children with special needs, and, in some cases, won judgments that required the district to underwrite private residential education elsewhere in the country.
I understand the challenges of students with extreme special needs, and the high cost of doing it right. But I think some of the costs are a result of schools failing to give these kids what they need at the very beginning:
Here is part of the AJC story:
When the police came, Stefan Ferrari’s teacher described Oct. 21, 2008, in her classroom for autistic children as “a regular, ordinary day.”
Perhaps it was, except for the tiny digital recorder sewn into the collar of Stefan’s shirt.
The device, planted by Stefan’s mother, collected eight hours and 19 minutes of sound, much of it the banality of yet another school day for a non-verbal 10-year-old. It also captured the teacher and her colleagues talking about sex and martinis. It picked up the teacher’s teasing Stefan after he ate pizza from the trash. And it chronicled the threat of a “be-quiet hit” to a crying child, followed by the repeated slaps of an adult’s hand against Stefan’s bottom.
That single day in an Atlanta classroom led to lawsuits in state and federal courts, to the teacher’s firing, to threats of criminal charges — against Stefan’s parents — and, finally, to what may have been the inevitable fracture of the boy’s family. Atlanta Public Schools spent $1.1 million of taxpayers’ money fighting Stefan’s family in court before agreeing this summer to pay private school tuition and therapeutic expenses into his adulthood.
What happened to Stefan reflects systemic problems in Atlanta’s special education program, according to court filings, other public records and interviews. Auditors said last year the program gets poor academic results and relies too heavily on special schools, such as the ones Stefan attended, to educate some of its most challenging students.
Stefan’s experience also illustrates how aggressively the school district can treat parents when it thinks they want too much for a child, even one who is profoundly disabled. When news of Stefan’s treatment broke in 2009, school district officials drafted a public response for then-Superintendent Beverly Hall.
“I am horrified and disgusted at what happened to the young man,” the statement read. “He and his family have been treated badly.”
Two months later, the school district sued them. In its lawsuit, the district suggested Stefan’s father caused his injuries and argued Stefan had no right to “elite private services … simply because the parents want to choose the ‘best’ programs, in their opinion, for their child.”
Federal law guarantees every child a “free and appropriate public education.” Public school districts also must provide special services needed by a child with disabilities. If they can’t, they must pay for the child to get the services elsewhere. Atlanta officials said Stefan could receive an adequate education in one of their schools.
It is not clear from public records who made the decision, or why, but school officials proceeded to fight the Ferraris — and fight them aggressively — in a state administrative court.
During a four-day trial in March 2009, the district’s lawyers pressed the idea that if Stefan was abused, it didn’t happen at school. They repeatedly referred to the incident that caused Carolyn Ferrari to seek a protective order against her husband in 2007. And they questioned her under oath about whether her husband had hit one of their sons. She said the boy told her it was accidental.
School officials made no concessions. One testified that the tear in Stefan’s shorts proved nothing. She said Stefan may have had “a growth spurt.”
Judge John B. Gatto ruled in May 2009 that Stefan was “intentionally injured in that classroom by trauma … and he was verbally abused.” The tear in Stefan’s pants, Gatto said, came from his being lifted off the floor by an adult who beat him. Gatto ordered the school district to pay for Stefan’s education in private schools through age 22.
Stefan is 13 now, attending a private school that specializes in educating children with autism. Besides being autistic, a psychologist’s report included in court files says, Stefan has a severe intellectual disability and severe language impairment. Stefan, the psychologist said, was developmentally equivalent to a 2-year-old.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog