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Wicomico County Public Schools Hinders Special Education Students From Succeeding

Updated: Jul 24



A parent can have an educational evaluation from board-certified child psychiatrist outlining what your child needs to be successful in an educational setting, but that doesn’t mean the school will provide the needed services. The school’s IEP team is composed mainly of WCPS employees who decide on the educational assessment performed by the school guidance counselor. Their own assessment criteria are the only information they will use to evaluate a child’s special education needs, and their limited assessment falls short. They simply ignore any outside evaluations from licensed professionals who are certified to determine such needs. Any assessment performed by school staff does not test for the diagnosis of disability, so the child looks great on paper.


Example: Susie had an Occupational Therapy (OT) evaluation from the WCPS OT for sensory issues. The report was 10 pages long, containing terminology that most wouldn’t understand. The assessment was based upon Susie’s ability to ride the school bus, which is typical a noisy environment that triggers her sensory issues. They reported that Susie rode the noisy bus without issue, and that she even enjoyed the ride. The OT failed to mention that when Susie rode the bus, there was only one other child on the bus, and the child was nonverbal.


Of the professional staff that conduct these assessments, the school fails to inform them that if their action violates a licensing board standard, they can lose their ability to practice. What staff is not aware of is that WCPS does not and cannot protect them. It only takes one parent to file a complaint to a licensing agency to result in losing their credentials. Since the position doesn't fall under the teacher’s union, they are completely unprotected.


If a parent disagrees with the IEP team’s decision, what can they do? They can get an attorney and file for due process. This can be legally intimidating, extremely expensive, time-consuming, and it often pits families and school districts against each other as adversaries, rather than partners. The process also diverts hundreds of thousands of dollars to attorneys, that could otherwise be going toward the education of students.


There is a process in place for parents to choose mediation before due process, but WCBOE has chosen not to provide that option, as put in place by the MSDE and utilized by other counties throughout Maryland. The money spent on attorneys is money we could otherwise be spending on services. If we can resolve a conflict and not spend money on attorneys, why are they not doing it? The WCBOE attorney does not inform the board of this option, because escalating conflict means more money for the attorney and his partners across the bridge.


Just because a school district settles a case doesn’t mean the district is admitting that it failed to provide services. Therefore, corrective action never takes place. These cases always have a nondisclosure clause, so citizens never really know how many violations the school has received. If parents do not comply with the nondisclosure agreement forced upon them, their child will once again be denied services - it's an infinite loop.


Due process cases are financially devastating for parents and traumatic for students, but this is seen as a last resort when their school refuses to give their children services or when their children are failing to make progress in school.


After you file due process (such as an OCR or MSDE complaint), it will commonly result in retaliation. Parents of nonverbal children do not complain, because they fear that the school will retaliate by bringing harm to their child, and their child won't be able to tell their parent about the abuse.


What can parents do:


  1. Audio record all meetings, but make sure you tell them that you are recording in advance. If they refuse to be recorded, exit the meeting.

  2. Request all documents in electronic communication and always use email.

  3. Ask the WCBOE to implement the existing policy of mediation before due process.

  4. Always be your child’s biggest advocate, and do whatever is necessary for them.


This is an excerpt from another school…..


"Some school staff have said they disapprove of parents who switch their children to private schools, then file due process claims to get the school district to pay the bill.

The thousands of dollars that can be paid to settle one due process case could have been used to pay for another school staff member who could have helped several children, rather than just one student, said Sara Finegan, a special education teacher at San Diego Unified’s Hage Elementary.


Settling to pay private school tuition “has never struck us as being the most efficient and cost-efficient way to do anything,” Finegan said.


Still, Lazaro said, it wasn’t until she moved Diego to the private school that, for the first time, he began looking forward to school and now sees himself as a writer. He no longer suffers from anxiety or depression, she said.


“The parents get blamed for the legal fees when, in actuality, the district is choosing to fight them so much that it’s costing everybody,” Lazaro said. “The general public doesn’t fully realize that this is the only way that we can create change and get what our kids need.”


Disputes on the rise

Parents, advocates, teachers and district administrators give varying reasons for why special education disputes are on the rise.


It may be because parents are becoming more savvy about their special education rights, said San Diego Unified Special Education Executive Director Sarah Ott.


Ott also thinks students with disabilities are coming in with more mental health needs, something the district says it is trying to address with additional staff training.


Some teachers and advocates in San Diego Unified think it’s because the district has been offering fewer special day classes, which are classes for only students with disabilities, in order to mainstream more students into general education classrooms.


“We always say students with disabilities are kind of the last class to be desegregated,” Ott said, “and we want to be sure we give access to quality instruction to all our kids.”


But some advocates and teachers say they think mainstreaming is forcing students with a wide variety of needs to fit into a narrower spectrum of choices, which can lead to disputes or problems with assigning incorrect services.


Some also say mainstreaming can be problematic when schools don’t provide enough staff to help students with disabilities integrate into general education classrooms.


As school districts say they struggle to fund special education, some advocates, teachers and parents say they can’t help but think that money plays a role in causing special education disputes.


“It’s money. Yeah. It’s money,” said Dayon Higgins, a special education advocate who has worked with families for about two decades. “It really comes down to dollars and cents.”

School districts frequently point out that they are not getting enough funding to keep pace with rising special education costs. The number of students with disabilities has been rising, but many districts’ overall enrollment has decreased, meaning they receive less state funding.

At the same time, districts are not allowed to say that they can’t provide proper services for a student with disabilities because they lack money or staff. Federal law says every student with disabilities must receive individualized, personalized services depending on their needs.

But teachers, parents and advocates say they have encountered cases in which students were denied services or did not get services promised by the school in their legally binding IEPs.


Higgins said one of her San Diego Unified student clients, who injures himself to the point of bleeding, got an IEP in January that says he needs a one-on-one aide. Nine months later, he still has no aide, Higgins said."


We encourage you to contact the WCBOE board members to let them know how you feel about their handling of special education and the abuse of parents and students in our schools.


WCBOE Board Members


Donald Fitzgerald - dfitzger@wcboe.org


Gene Malone - gmalone@wcboe.org


Allen Brown - abrown@wcboe.org


John Palmer - jpalmer@wcboe.org


Tonya Lewis - tlewis@wcboe.org


Michael Murray - mmurray@wcboe.org


Ann Suthowski - asuthowsk@wcboe.org



Fellows & Editors

July 22, 2021. Copyright DelmarvaPTC.org.


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Resources:


L.A. Times, Families endure costly legal fights trying to get the right special education services https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2019-10-06/legal-fights-families-special-education-services


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