Doctors have given Tracy Thompson’s fifth-grade daughter a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, one of the learning disabilities on which Washington-area school systems spend millions of dollars a year.
A hallmark of ADHD is difficulty getting organized. Thompson’s daughter has trouble writing down her assignments correctly and bringing home all the materials she needs.
One of the standard accommodations schools make for such children is to assign a teacher or teacher’s aide to check the student’s backpack before she heads home. Under Section 504 and other provisions of the federal laws guiding accommodations for students with disabilities, Thompson has requested that Heather Hills Elementary School in Prince George’s County do this. The mother said that until recently the request was often ignored, causing incomplete homework, tears and bad grades.
According to Thompson, school officials said her daughter should do the checking because it will help her develop responsibility. This year, Thompson reported, a teacher said, “I do not and will not take responsibility for packing [the child’s] book bag.”
That is like saying a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair should walk between classes to build her strength. But Thompson and other parents say they are used to such reactions, particularly with children such as her daughter. The girl reads far above grade level, Thompson said, and thus is considered by some teachers to be capable of anything.
“The attitude I have encountered among many Heather Hills teachers is that . . . learning disabilities are an inconvenience to them, that accommodations are an unfair imposition of extra work and/or a lessening of academic rigor, that she ‘needs to focus’ and ‘take responsibility’ for her inability to stay organized, and that my efforts to advocate for her are simply enabling her irresponsibility,” Thompson said.
Thompson is a former Washington Post colleague. Her accounts of how her child has been treated match what I have heard from other parents in other schools who prefer not to be identified. But it is important to note that I have been unable to get the school’s side of the story. Thompson’s experiences with her child should not be taken as a general indictment of Heather Hills, which has high state test scores and meets academic standards under No Child Left Behind. Many fine schools in this region have faltered when it comes to dealing with learning disabilities.
Heather Hills Principal Patsy Hosch did not comment. Prince George’s schools spokesman Briant Coleman said:
“It is unfortunate that the information described in your article contains numerous errors and misinformation. However, because of confidentiality laws, we are unable to discuss the specifics of this particular case. It is, however, important to state that the staff at Heather Hills Elementary School has consistently been in compliance with the guidelines set forth in the 504 plans for all of its students. As always, we will continue to communicate with any parent about concerns or issues related to student 504 plans.”
Communicating with teachers is a frequent headache for parents whose children have learning disabilities, many have told me. Thompson said a math teacher told her that “I don’t do e-mail” and that her workday ended at 3 p.m. Thompson said that teacher chastised her in writing for calling during the school day to leave a message for her.
According to Thompson, another math teacher ignored e-mail messages and told Thompson that she was available only from 7:45 to 8 a.m. by appointment. Thompson showed up at 7:45 a.m. one day without an appointment because of an emergency — her daughter had said her frustration with math was so intense she wanted to hurt herself. Thompson said the teacher upbraided her for not going through proper channels.
I am all for teaching responsibility, but come on. Thompson said school system officials have recently shown an interest in her case. I hope they consider the time and money that could be saved if teachers understood the law — and the power of offering a sympathetic ear.