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, picked up immediately on the fact that his mother was not congratulating him. He was 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 Tilden Middle School in Rockville 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 asked Montgomery County school officials for a detailed response to Roth's story. They declined.
School system spokesman Brian J. Porter said there are "several important and substantial factual errors" in Roth's account, but school lawyers advised against telling me what they are.
At my request, Roth signed a statement waiving her privacy rights and Dustin's, but Porter said that was not enough. The school district's attorneys said officials still could be sued for what they said to me.
Roth said she first became concerned about Dustin's progress in school when she got his standardized test scores after second grade in another school system. On some subjects he was doing well, reaching the 96th percentile. On others, he was in trouble, scoring as low as the 14th percentile. When she asked his teachers about that, she recalled, 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 something wasn't right. She got some help for Dustin, but not under the legal protections of the federal special education law.
That became a problem when she moved to Montgomery County in 1999. Not until fourth grade did school officials finally declare him eligible for special education services, and when Roth asked for comprehensive testing to get a clearer understanding of his educational needs, they said no.
Roth decided to fight. As executive director of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association, she was an expert on policies to aid the disabled, yet she was not getting her own son all the help he needed. She was convinced that if she had been less meek when his second-grade scores were shrugged off by the professional educators she trusted, she might have had a two-year head start.
Then she learned what happens when an individual tries to force a large bureaucracy to do something it does not want to do.
On Aug. 14, for instance, she complained to Carol Ann Baglin, assistant state superintendent of the Division of Special Education for the Maryland State Department of Education (MSDE), about being unable to get help from the department's regional administrator.
"When I called her on Aug. 9, she told me she was going to a meeting and would call later in the day," Roth said. "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.' "
The frustrating routine continued. Roth sent me this message 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 [Montgomery County public schools] 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. . . . On that date, there will be approximately 51 school days left in the sixth grade in which to provide the free, appropriate public education my son has been denied since I first approached his second-grade teacher about my concerns in October 1998."
The letters and e-mails have continued, with not much progress from Roth's point of view. She met with school system staff members Jan. 17 but does not see any quick response to her plea for more services and hopefully placement for Dustin in a private program.
She has visited the special program that the county recommended and learned from its director that it will not address Dustin's combination of learning difficulties, what his official paperwork refers to as "health-impaired Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) with learning and emotional challenges."
I have heard literally hundreds of stories like this from other parents across the country. 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. And I acknowledge that special education services are often understaffed and underfinanced.
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 stories shorter and make it more likely that children get the help they need.
When Roth went to Tilden to complain about the science teacher's thoughtless comment, acting principal Eoline Cary met with Roth immediately. Cary said she would look into the situation and did so.
That evening, Dustin told his mother that Cary had apologized to him and had asked him whether 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 the teacher's embarrassing remarks never should have happened. That 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.