Special education battles with no end

Jay Mathews
Columnist November 4, 2012

Seth turns 9 on Saturday. He is a radiant child who often looks better than he feels. He was born nearly four months prematurely and weighed 15 ounces at birth.

He has many medical issues, including bronchopulmonary dysplasia, a chronic lung disease. He has been hospitalized often. He is fed by a tube. His school-related disabilities — difficulty speaking and processing information and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder — have sparked a legal battle between his parents and the Montgomery County Public Schools.

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

Such fights are sadly common in U.S. schools. Children with disabilities are entitled to special-education services, but sometimes educators and families don’t agree what those services should be. Lawyers are hired. Tax dollars and retirement savings are spent. Seth’s parents and Montgomery County have been at it for 16 months, with no end in sight.

Seth’s maternal grandfather, retired Montgomery County social worker Steve Zepnick, told me about the case. Both sides let me see their legal arguments. Like everyone involved, I want Seth to get a good education. But I am not sure how to do that. The administrative and legal systems seem unlikely to inspire agreement. Is there something else we could do?

Administrative Law Judge Brian Zlotnick ruled in December that Seth’s two months at Little Bennett Elementary School in Clarksburg in 2009 proved that a regular public school was the best place for him. He attended a kindergarten class with 21 other students, some with disabilities.

“Seth did not exhibit any signs of illness while he attended” the school, Zlotnick said. “Seth began as a level-one reader and progressed to a level-two reader within two months.”

His academic progress was not impressive, but school officials thought he improved and that he loved the regular classroom atmosphere. Maryland law says schools must ensure that “to the maximum extent appropriate, students with disabilities . . . are educated with students who are not disabled,” Zlotnick concluded in ruling for the county.

Seth’s family said school staff might have thought he was well but were wrong. “When he is ill, he still looks great to others,” Zepnick said, “and the danger to him is not fully recognized by school system staff.”

On Nov. 4, 2009, the parents removed Seth from the school. Zlotnick said this was “due to a respiratory flare-up they believed could have developed into pneumonia.” His doctor said he was too ill for school. Zlotnick noted that “Seth was not hospitalized in November 2009 due to illness, nor did he develop pneumonia from this flare-up.”

But he never returned to Little Bennett. The dispute has disintegrated into charges and countercharges of misinformation and dishonesty. The parents said Seth was too ill to attend school for two years, but county school officials failed to check this out with his doctors. The county’s attorney suggested the parents exaggerated his susceptibility to illness in a regular classroom. He introduced evidence that they exposed Seth to other children and potential viral threats in, among other things, a moon bounce and ball pits when he celebrated his sixth birthday.

The parents have asked the county to pay for Seth’s placement in a small private school, where there would be no more than nine students in a class. They have gone to court to overturn Zlotnick’s ruling that he should remain in public school.

What should we do? Would it help to get the courts out of it? Would it work better to give special-ed students vouchers they could use to choose the best private services? Should Montgomery County encourage the creation of charter schools skilled at educating such children?

Let me know if you have any ideas. The process at the moment causes pain and costs money, but doesn’t appear to produce much.

To read previous columns by Jay Mathews, go to washingtonpost.
com/jaymathews.

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