When Marcie Roth's sixth grade son Dustin told her he had made the honor roll, she did not know how to react. She did not feel very happy about it. He was a special education student who had been refusing to attend school and whose last report card had shown N/G, which meant no grade, in every subject except physical education, where he received the single A that apparently qualified him for the honor.

Dustin, a smart and sensitive child no matter what his grades, picked up immediately on the fact that she was not congratulating him. He was very upset with her. But for Roth, that was not as bad as what happened the next day.

Dustin was bragging about the award in his science class at Tilton Middle School in Rockville, Md., when his teacher interrupted him. "I can't allow you to be dishonest in this class," the woman said. "You didn't make the honor roll, Dustin." When the boy objected, the teacher apparently forgot she was dealing with a fragile ego in a room full of children and said, "You couldn't have made the honor roll, because you failed my class."

It took Dustin almost a week to bring himself to tell his mother, who added it to the grievances she had been accumulating against the Montgomery County public school system. Her list is so long and so full of anger and frustration that I thought I would present some of her story as an example of why special education has become, without any doubt, the most emotional and contentious subject in public schools today.

I have asked the Montgomery County school officials for a response to Roth's story. They have declined. School district spokesman Brian J. Porter said there are "several important and substantial factual errors" in Roth's account of how she and her son have been treated, but school district lawyers advise against telling me what they are. At my request, Roth signed a statement waiving her and Dustin's privacy rights, but Porter said that is not enough. The school district attorneys say that school officials still could be sued for what they said to me, whether they had Roth's permission or not.

Roth says she first became concerned about Dustin's progress in school when she got his standardized test scores after second grade. On some subjects he was doing very well, reaching the 96th percentile. On others, he was in trouble, as low as the 14th percentile. When she asked his teachers about this, she recalls, they said "he was having a bad day" and "well, that was last year--he's doing fine now" and "the tests are only one measure, don't take them too seriously."

Like most parents, she was happy to be reassured but her gut told her that something wasn't right. She continued to ask for extra help and got some, but not under the legal protections of the federal special education law. This became a problem when she moved to Montgomery County in 1999. School officials told her they could not provide the services Dustin had been receiving without declaring him eligible under the federal law, and they did not think he qualified. He was bright. He would outgrow his troubles.

By fourth grade, his scores were ranging from the 78th to the 8th percentile and his frustration was beginning to affect his behavior. School officials finally declared him eligible for special education services. When he continued to struggle, Roth asked for comprehensive testing to get a clearer understanding of his educational needs. She says the school district refused, saying less drastic and expensive measures should be tried first. She got the Maryland State Department of Education to order the county to pay for the tests, which showed the same disturbing discrepancies in Dustin's level of achievement.

Montgomery County continued to resist her suggestions, and the state's orders, but Roth was determined to fight. As executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, she was an expert on policies to aid the disabled, and yet she so far had been unable to give her own son all the help he needed. She was convinced that if she had been less meek when the second grade scores were shrugged off by the professional educators she trusted, she might have had a two-year head start. But she quickly learned what happens when an individual tries to force a very large bureaucracy to do something it does not want to do.

On Aug. 14, 2002, for instance, she wrote to Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent, division of special education for the Maryland State Department of Education:

"School starts in less than two weeks. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has failed to complete several corrective actions that were ordered by the MD State Department of Education (MSDE), further violating my child's and my rights. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. To add further frustration, I have been unsuccessful in my attempts to obtain assistance from .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. the MSDE regional administrator designated in all of your correspondence as the MSDE representative to contact for assistance. When I called her on Aug. 9, she told me she was going to a meeting and would call later in the day. When I received no return call, I called at the end of the day, but was unable to reach her. I did receive a return call on Aug. 12, but [she] told me she had no information. She said she would 'look into it.' .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. At this point, I have still have not had a return call. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. This is even more horrifying because the new school year brings Dustin's entrance into middle school. I hope you understand how frustrated, angry, scared and sad I am."

Anticipating more pain and failure in middle school, Dustin refused to go, forcing Roth to enroll him in a two-week day program at Children's National Hospital that treats children who resist attending school. She continued to push for more services, including placement in a private school equipped to handle Dustin's unique and seemingly contradictory needs, and compensation for the services the county refused to pay for. State officials wrote back to her, promising to check out the situation, which prompted this Roth message to me on Nov. 11:

"It seems that MSDE has given themselves another 60 days to investigate my complaints. When they inevitably issue findings in our favor, they give MCPS another 15 days to respond, which, given MCPS' history, rather than admit their mistakes in the best interest of my child, MCPS will ask for a reconsideration and will provide useless information that MSDE will take 30 additional days to consider and then disregard. They will then uphold their previous findings. Then, MCPS will be allowed to take another 45 days to submit their corrective actions, and then when those 45 days have passed, MSDE will begin their (undefined) enforcement process. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. On that date, there will be approximately 51 school days left in the sixth grade in which to provide the free, appropriate public education (FAPE) my son has been denied since I first approached his second grade teacher about my concerns in October, 1998."

On Jan. 7 of this year, Roth received a letter from Baglin, the state official, addressed to both her and Bobbi Jasper, director of special education for MCPS. It said the county had completed much of what it was required to do but "the timelines for these activities has been delayed due to the ongoing dynamics of the disagreements between the parties." Baglin ended with this plaintive appeal: "Students always benefit when parents and school can put aside their differences and focus on that which is most important."

Roth was steaming when she read this. Her reply to Baglin said, "The suggestion that I have maintained anything but a clear and narrow focus on Dustin's needs while MCPS delays, obstructs, manipulates, denies, refuses and simply fails, again and again to do what is required of them is both factually wrong and highly offensive."

Baglin apologized in an e-mail the next day, the fastest response Roth said she had ever received. Roth e-mailed right back, thanking her for the unusually quick and direct response. "Usually I wait for days or weeks for simple acknowledgment from your staff that you have seen my letters, while I live moment to moment desperately trying to hold my little boy back from falling faster and faster into a black hole."

The letters and e-mails have continued, with not much progress from Roth's point of view. She met with MCPS staff last Friday, but does not see any quick response to her plea for more services and hopefully a private placement. The next step is a meeting with the central office, but that probably won't happen for another month. She has already visited the special program that the county is recommending, and learned from its director that it will not address Dustin's combination of learning difficulties, what his official paperwork refers to as "other health-impaired Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with learning and emotional challenges."

As with many special education cases, I could fill a long book with the story of Roth, Dustin and MCPS. I hope they reach some solution. I think I would behave much as Roth has if I were in her place, although I recognize that there are parents who demand expensive and unproven services from school districts and force the spending of hundreds of thousands of tax dollars on lawyers as a result.

But there is one part of Roth's story that makes me wonder if simple good manners, treating other people as we would like to be treated, might make these cases shorter, and more likely to get children the help they need.

When Roth went to Tilden to complain about the science teacher's thoughtless comment, acting principal Eoline Cary met with her immediately. Cary said she would look into it and did so. That evening, Dustin told his mother that Cary had apologized to him and asked if he wanted to move to a different class. He said, "Mom, I told them I want to stay because I need to learn how to deal with this, not run away."

Cary told Roth it should never have happened. I suspect Cary also had a serious talk with the science teacher.

It is the way a true professional, and a thoughtful human being, would deal with such matters. It is sad that Cary's methods are not more popular, in our school bureaucracies and many other places.