Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Rebecca Smondrowski’s child. The story has been updated.

For years, Drew and Debra Powell fought the special education system in Montgomery County.

They hired private tutors for their son after educators told them that he would never be literate. They pushed back when administrators at their son’s middle school wanted to place him in a more restrictive classroom, isolating him from students without disabilities. And they fought when Montgomery public-school officials wanted to label their son “emotionally disturbed” after an administrator didn’t allow him to go to the restroom and he had an accident.

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.

“When you think about Montgomery County, you think about a community of parents that do have access to resources,” Mason said. “They are informed parents who may be attorneys themselves or have the means to secure some of the region’s or the nation’s best attorneys to represent families.”

Mason also said that although there are instances in which the county and parents don’t agree, less than 1 percent of Montgomery’s more than 17,000 special education families request outside mediation or sue the district to resolve problems.

School officials said they could not speak to the specifics of the Powell family’s case. But Mason said the county is working on several efforts to improve the educational experience for special education families, including recently wrapping up a survey of parents.

Concerns over special education disputes and their costs is a long-standing issue in Montgomery. In 1997, longtime schools activist Bob Astrove led a task force to review the matter.

“By simultaneously concentrating on winning litigation and reducing program costs, the county has inadvertently backed into a policy of providing the ‘least expensive environment’ instead of high quality and appropriate education for children with disabilities,” said a report that emerged from Astrove’s task force. “Montgomery County’s soaring special education litigation expense is the natural consequence.”

Spending on special education litigation has dropped in Montgomery since 1997. That year, the district spent $3.5 million on such litigation, with 77 percent of the money paid to outside law firms representing the school system, according to the task force report.

Some in Montgomery, such as the Powells, feel as if they have to turn to lawyers to get the “free and appropriate education” that federal law requires public schools to provide to students with disabilities. Services for an “appropriate education” could range from an extra 30 minutes of speech therapy for a child each day to having the school system pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition for a private school.

Karen Smith, a lawyer who works with parents in Montgomery when they are unhappy with the county’s special education services, told the Montgomery County Council in March that the process is overly adversarial.

She said the Montgomery school system’s “zero-sum-game attitude towards parents in special education due process, which kicks in with a vengeance as soon as the matter is referred to outside counsel, creates unnecessary bitterness and wastes taxpayer money.”

The Powells wanted their son to receive fewer special education services. Worried that they would lose a lawsuit against the school system, the family instead decided to spend nearly $30,000 on private tutors. After 16 months, their son’s reading proficiency went up six grade levels.

But after the Powells’ son learned to read, the family still had difficult relations with the schools. Staff members wanted to place him in a more isolated school environment. Years later, they labeled him “emotionally disturbed,” a code Drew Powell successfully had lifted from his son’s file this summer.

That’s when the legal battle began. The Powells hired two lawyers, sent nearly 600 e-mails to the school system and burned through more than $40,000 in legal fees.

“Many thousands of taxpayer dollars have been spent in order to ram expensive special services down our son’s throat,” Drew Powell said. “What do regular folks with two working parents and fewer resources do?”

Smondrowski, the Board of Education member, said she has similar worries for parents without the money or tenacity to fight for their children. She said her struggles to get her son the special education resources he needed were part of the reason she ran for the board.

She didn’t file a lawsuit against the school system because she didn’t have the resources. “Instead, I just had to fight by being in the schools and working with the system to the best of our abilities,” Smondrowski said.

Families that are likely to give up are often those whose incomes, education or English-language skills are limited, said Nancy Reder, deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

“If it was hard for us two over-educated people with law degrees to figure out the system, I can only imagine how hard it is for someone whose primary language is not English,” said Reder. She and her husband navigated special education issues in one area school district for their daughters, who are now grown and successful.

Reder said bringing in lawyers should be a last resort for parents and school districts.

“It’s in both sides’ interests to look to alternate forms of addressing issues because litigation is the most costly option, even in a wealthy county like Montgomery,” Reder said.

Drew Powell said he had no choice but to turn to lawyers. He worried that the “emotionally disturbed” coding for his son would have hindered his job prospects.

The Powells said they had to advocate every step of the way for their son, who has plans to go to college. He said he hopes that whatever the Board of Education does, the actions will result in better outcomes for parents.

“We need to enter a new era where parents, students and Montgomery County schools, we’re all on the same team,” he said.