Frustrated parents can also file a complaint with the state. District leaders say some of the parents now protesting have previously filed state complaints or taken the matter to court — and lost.
Kathrine Francis, executive director of Broward’s Exceptional Student Education department, said such disputes are an “emotional” battle in which parents can find it difficult to move on.
“You’re a parent fighting for your child,” Francis said. “Some fight harder, they fight stronger and longer.”
Of nearly 33,000 special-needs students in Broward, Francis stresses that fewer than 1 percent are the subject of due process court battles. Parents critical of the district say that statistic can be misleading, as fighting in court can be so intimidating (and expensive, if attorneys are hired) that many unhappy parents don’t bother.
In 2009, the Florida Department of Education organized a special on-site visit to Broward’s special-needs student programs. In a report summarizing that visit, the state wrote that one of the reasons it picked Broward was the large number of dispute resolution requests coming from the district’s special-needs parents. While still a minority of the families served, Broward’s percentage of due process court cases, complaints to the state from parents, and mediation sessions was more than 50 percent higher than the state average.
“I am shocked by that number,” said Broward School Board member Katie Leach, who spent years teaching special-needs students in the district, and is herself the mother of a special-needs child. Leach for a time worked as a special-needs consultant for Nova Southeastern University, and traveled the country setting up student programs in other school districts.
“Comparatively, Broward wasn’t perfect, but was much further ahead of the curve in the quality of programs that we’re providing kids,” Leach said. She still believes Broward’s special-needs care is top-notch, though mistakes can always occur.
For the 2011-12 school year, state figures show both Miami-Dade and Broward school districts had the same number of parent dispute resolution requests (50), though Miami-Dade’s came from a significantly larger pool of students.
Regarding the planned closures of two special-needs educational centers, Leach said the under enrollment there is a direct consequence of federal rules that require disabled students to be placed in a traditional school setting whenever possible. By consolidating the centers, Leach said Broward will have the resources to offer kids a wider range of elective classes, and students can be broken into groups by grade level — as opposed to teaching different grades all at once because the current schools are so small.
That sales pitch isn’t working with many parents, however. They complain about having no real input in the district’s decision-making process, and they say administrators fail to grasp how damaging these forced relocations will be. Parent Mellissa Smith said the unique sense of community at Wingate Oaks has allowed her son, Ellijah, who is autistic and non-verbal, to get over his separation anxiety and enjoy attending school. At 13 years old, Ellijah is finally potty trained, and for the first time in his life has made friends with classmates. Staff at the school intuitively understand the meaning of Ellijah’s different silent gestures, Smith said.
“He’s going to go back to ‘throwing poo’ days, because all of this is being taken from him,” Smith said. “He has friends ... I never thought he would have friends ... little stuff like that, it matters big.”