The Powells’ 15-year-old son is now thriving in high school despite his learning disability, but it wouldn’t have happened, they say, without a series of painstaking clashes with the school system that have just about consumed their lives and family income.
“His entire future was at stake,” said Drew Powell, who asked that his son’s name not be used in order to protect him. “His educational, academic and personal future and his whole self-
esteem. Sadly, our experience and experiences similar to these have been shared by many other parents over the years.”
The Powells are not alone. Complaints of difficult relations between special education parents and the school system have prompted some elected officials to call for an external review of the special education department in Montgomery, a proposal that a Board of Education committee is expected to consider in coming months.
The review, supporters say, would improve relations between the district and parents, possibly saving taxpayers millions of dollars in litigation costs. Montgomery schools spent more than $1.9 million on outside legal expenses for cases related to special education from fiscal 2010 to 2013, roughly equivalent to the cost of 25 teachers, based on average county salaries.
“I’m proud of our special education department, and I know they work hard,” said Board of Education member Rebecca Smondrowski, who asked for the external audit. “But there are things that need to be seriously looked at.”
Smondrowski, the parent of a special education student, said Montgomery parents often complain to her about how difficult it is to obtain appropriate special education services for their children. Frustrated families then turn to lawyers for help.
Montgomery parents are more litigious than those from any other school system in Maryland and Virginia when it comes to special education cases, according to data from both state departments of education. Montgomery is home to about 12 percent of Maryland’s disabled students but accounted for about half the state’s special education disputes from 2010 to 2012. The county, with nearly 40 cases, had more special education due-process hearings that went to a judge for resolution than all Virginia school systems combined.
But just because the county has more hearings than other Maryland school systems doesn’t necessarily mean that there are disproportionate issues with the quality of county services, said Gwendolyn J. Mason, director of the Department of Special Education Services for Montgomery schools.