How an unhappy parent beat school resistance without a lawyer

Jay Mathews
Columnist May 18

When I first wrote about Stacie Jones’s case last year, she felt the teachers and administrators at Potomac Landing Elementary School in Prince George’s County were treating her as if she weren’t there.

Her third-grade twin sons, born two months premature, were flummoxed by reading and were unable to add or subtract three-digit numbers. She reported this to the individualized education program (IEP) team set up for them at the school, but the boys continued to get passing grades while making little progress. Jones, then known as Stacie Brockman, was told they would soon be promoted to fourth grade, where she knew they would be lost.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years. View Archive

I have written many columns about parents at odds with their schools. They often find that their observations and instincts, and even diagnoses by experts, are ignored by educators. At Potomac Landing, Jones said, the IEP team chairperson dismissed a report from the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, one of the top U.S. providers of care for children with learning disabilities, that one boy had dysgraphia (a writing disability) and dyslexia (a reading disability), and the other had a language disorder that severely affected his speech and reading comprehension.

The school indicated it would do things its way, no matter what Jones thought.

In such cases I don’t usually have a chance to report what happens next, but Jones revealed to me how without a lawyer, she persuaded Prince George’s to take her seriously and pay for her sons to attend a private school for children with learning disabilities in Fairfax County, so far with encouraging results.

In the year they have been at the Oakwood School, Jones said, “I have seen tremendous improvement in their confidence levels, their reading abilities, and their understanding of the material being taught. Homework is no longer a three-hour chore. Instead they come home, get their work done and still have the time and enthusiasm to play before the day is over.”

My understanding of the options for parents in Jones’s situation is rudimentary. I had no idea, until she told me, that she could file a due process case against the county on her own. It was her only chance because she had no money for a lawyer. It wasn’t easy. She was up some nights until 3 a.m., “trying to learn what my rights were, what services the boys were entitled to and what their assessments really meant,” she told me.

“I pieced the process together by myself,” she said, “requesting the boys’ school records, writing letters to the school officials, responding to their ‘prior written notice’ letters that essentially said the boys were appropriately placed, didn’t need more intensive services, and were fine to go to the fourth grade.”

She compared the school’s documents to the Kennedy Krieger report and other assessments to see if specialists’ recommendations had been implemented. “Many had not,” she said. “I used that information to form the substance of my due-process filing.”

She sent her paperwork, with letters and data, to the county and state offices in charge. When there was no response in the time set by law, she called the county and was told her petition had fallen through the cracks. She reported that to the state. The county then organized a resolution session, but it produced nothing. She got a loan and in August enrolled the boys in Oakwood, where annual tuition is $28,000 per child.

The day before a scheduled state hearing, a school system attorney contacted her with a settlement offer. After negotiations, the district agreed to pay for Oakwood for this one year — which is almost over — but said county disability experts would have to approve future tuition.

Prince George’s schools spokesman Max A. Pugh Jr. noted that “all parents of students with disabilities receive procedural safeguards, which explain their due process rights.” Prince George’s seems to be listening to Jones. It would be nice if schools were quicker to do that in all such cases.

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