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Special Education Lawsuit Pits Parents Against Boston Public Schools

State and federal laws have required an on-time transition to preschool for kids who need special education since 1991. (Flickr/cafemama)

BOSTON — Stop by the old Fifield School in Dorchester these days and you’ll see classes full of kids with developmental disabilities receiving special education services. The Fifield was shut down last June as part of a Boston Public Schools consolidation plan. But it recently reopened, a move that came several months after some parents sued the school district for not providing required services to preschoolers with special needs.

“It’s been shown that if you deliver services to this group of kids at this early age, in the long run, you’re going to save money.”
– Boston attorney Michael Vhay

Among those students is three-year-old Sebastian Bradley, who has autism and — other than a few simple words here and there — is non-verbal. At home and school, he uses an iPad to learn.

Before he turned three, Sebastian was getting government-funded developmental services through two local non-profits agencies. When he was two-and-a-half, one of those agencies referred his mother to the Boston Public Schools system to be evaluated for preschool, as is required by law.

Dropping The Ball

But according to Sebastian’s mother, Nathalie Armand-Bradley, the school district totally dropped the ball. She says months went by with no evaluations, and then Sebastian was offered a school that didn’t have the services he needs. At that point, the district had missed the legal deadline for enrolling him in school on his third birthday. By the time the district did place Sebastian in an appropriate school in January, he’d gone three-and-a-half months without any services.

“It was horrific, the way that they handled it,” his mother says. “There was a lot of, ‘Oh, the reason why this isn’t happening at this time is because we don’t have the resources. We are short-staffed.’ It’s a sad excuse. It’s embarrassing. It shouldn’t happen at all.”

And she says the delay hurt her son.

“He regressed profoundly, and it just left Sebastian without much guidance. It really affected him tremendously, and our family as well.”

Lawsuit Fights Delayed Services For Special Needs Children

Armand-Bradley is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Boston Public Schools meant to stop the district from delaying placements for preschoolers who need special education. The parents suing also want the school system to pay for extra services, such as speech therapy, to make up for what their kids lost.

“This is the entry point,” says Boston attorney Michael Vhay, who represents the parents in the suit, which was initiated by the non-profit organization Massachusetts Advocates for Children. “The obligation is very clear: having been identified as early as age two or two-and-a-half, these are children that Boston Public Schools knows are coming.”

Since 1991, state and federal laws have required an on-time transition to preschool for kids who need special education.

Since fall, the city has added 20 classrooms to serve special education preschoolers. That has meant scrambling to hire or transfer teachers — and, in the case of the Fifield, reopening an entire school just months before the academic year winds down.

“We know that we’re going to need two more classes within the next month, and we are prepared to open more classes than that before the end of the year,” says John Verre, Boston’s assistant superintendent for special education and student services.

Asked how the system may have broken down, Verre says he can’t account for what happened before he took his current position two years ago. In reply to a more pointed question — were kids in need of special education services suffering because the Boston Public Schools failed to service them properly? — Verre says this: “I’m not going to answer that question. I will say this: that I know parents — because I spend a lot of time every day with parents — who feel that way. And I don’t know whether that condition existed. What I know is that I believe many of these families now feel that our job is to make it right.”

School systems in Massachusetts have had more than 20 years to get it right. Since 1991, state and federal laws have required an on-time transition to preschool for kids who need special education. But the state Department of Education has cited the Boston Public Schools at least twice in the last decade for being out of compliance. The state says no other district is currently in violation.

“It’s been shown that if you deliver services to this group of kids at this early age,” says Vhay, “in the long run you’re going to save money, as opposed to not providing the education and then having to deal with it at the back end, in terms of high school dropouts.”

Boston school officials say there are currently no Boston preschoolers on special education wait lists, in part because school department employees now work more closely with the agencies that serve those children before they’re three.

BPS Assistant Superintendent Feels ‘Burned’ By Lawsuit

But Assistant Superintendent Verre acknowledges that some autistic students still aren’t receiving one required evaluation — it’s called applied behavioral analysis — and related follow-up on time. As for any other problems since he took over, Verre says that — on the advice of his lawyers — he has to be careful how he answers.

But he does say he feels stung by the lawsuit.

“I believe that I was making — I and my department — was making major efforts in the right direction, and that all of the accomplishments we have made this year we would have made anyway,” he says. “I had been nothing but honest and forthcoming and transparent. So I feel like I was burned.”

Some parents have seen improvements, but they’re pressing on with their suit. And Armand-Bradley says she hopes her son will regain a skill he lost during his time without services: pointing so he can communicate what he needs.

“I’m confident that he’ll be the greatest that he can be,” she says. “He just needs the services. He needs a great support system. And he has it here at home. I just hope that his school will not deny him.”

Changes to the system remain a work in progress. Boston school officials say they’re still figuring out how many special ed preschoolers they’ll have next year and how many classrooms they’ll need.

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  • Anonymous

    I and my department — was making major efforts in the right direction, and that all of the accomplishments we have made this year we would have made anyway,”  –  I and my dept was

  • SpedLaw60

    The laws requiring special education services has been in existence since 1975.  Boston was cited at least twice as being non complaint.  How does an administrator “feel burnt” by a law suit that was waiting to happen?

    Non compliance with special education laws is rampent across this state.  These children repeatedly have their rights violated because the districts face no real punitive action by the state or the feds. 

  • Guest

    He feels as if he was burned?  What if it were his child who lost the equivalent of at least a year of development at that critical age?  Studies have shown that austistic children benefit most at this critical pre-school age and to simply not have staff and leave children at risk is reprehensible.  We aren’t talking about not being able to tie their shoes until a few months later; we are talking about,  at the very least,  speech and motor skills delays that can never be recovered.  And he calls himself an educator? Spare me how he was burned…the unmitigated gall! 

  • Deann

    Special ed laws need to be re-worked. Special ed uses up exorbitant amounts of the school budget. There should be limits on the amounts spent especially since our government is deeply in debt. The gravy train is going to end soon enough and then no one will get any “services”. 
    We all need to start living within our means and that includes special ed.

    • Jtko

      You obviously do not have a special needs child or a heart. I was in honors classes in high school and enjoyed the experience but would rather see that budget cut then special education. Imagine for a second struggling to communicate with your five year old and then try to tell me of this ‘gravy train.’ These are children the NEED extra help to even begin developing into a functioning adult. Think before you type!

    • Toddsmommy1130

      Deanne,
      Why don’t you get a life? Apparently you’d no heart and seem to be a real ignorant ass. What would you rather have happen to these kids, be locked in a room alone for the rest of their lives. Obviously youre not a parent, if you were, you’d think twice before posting something that ridiculous.

    • SpedLaw60

      Your comment reflects a lack of understanding of special education and the population served.  You seem to believe that because a child receives special education services or that the services are expensive that the child is so severely impaired that he/she won’t ever contribute any way. 

      Please educate yourself.  Less than 15% of special needs children are cognitively impaired to the point where they cannot complete HS.  The majority of children are as capable as their neurotypical peers BUT they need specialized instruction and services to learn.  Sometimes that means a substantially separate classroom or private school.  These cost more money but less than adult warehousing services of the past.

      As to your comment about liviing within ones means.  Did you know that having a child with a disability on average reduces a family’s income by 18%?  Did you know that parents (mothers) of children with special needs are often underemployed or forced to leave paid employment becasue of the needs of their children?  Do you have any idea the costs associated with therapies not covered by insurance, unpaid FMLA, and or monies needed to hire evaluators and advocates to ensure that a child receives the services he/she is legally entitled to?

      No, you are not aware.  I am both as a parent and an attorney.  There is no “gravy train” for our families.  It’s more like the bankruptcy train. 

      • Anonymous

        What percentage of special eduction money is spent on the “Less than 15% of special needs children are cognitively impaired to the point where they cannot complete HS.” compared to the ones who with help will graduate?  Is spending education money on people who are unable to graduate from high school worth the expense?   Would another support service be more appropriate?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

     “Asked how the system may have broken down, Verre says he can’t account
    for what happened before he took his current position two years ago.”

    As a parent who has dragged  BPS to a due process hearing about 10 years only to watch them cave and settle right before we walked into the courtroom because of the list of documented grievances we had, it sounds like things are pretty much the same.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you to Armand-Bradley and Mass Advocates for Children for following through on this very important component of our education system.  The failures noted affect the most vulnerable of our children, those who sometimes literally have no voice.  Mr. Verre might take a moment to wonder how “stung” and “burned” the parents of these children feel, especially since he admits that his department is STILL not providing Applied Behavioral Analysis evaluations.  ABA, for short, is THE research-based intervention that is KNOWN to benefit children with autism spectrum disorders.

    So he thinks these parents should feel grateful that now, after he’s been on the job for two years, he’s trying to play catch-up?   Because he’s “making major efforts in the right direction”?  Hellloooo?  The English translation for that turn of phrase is that his department is STILL not compliant with the law and children are STILL being denied the education to which they are entitled.

    Parents should never have been put in the position of policing their school departments.  If someone steals my purse, I file a police report and they investigate, and perhaps prosecute.    When my school district denies that my child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder has ANY needs in the area of organizational and related skills, *I* have to hire an evaluator and the district has to “consider” their report.  Then, if they continue to “not see the need”, I have to hire an attorney and expert witnesses and present a case at Hearing.  

    Guess what?  For families who don’t have the available time, cash, and understanding of their child’s needs AND the way the system works, the child gets nothing and the district’s avoidance tactics save on their bottom line.

    Since about 18-20% of our schoolchildren have identified special needs, you’d think the federal, state, and local administrators would get together and find a way to make the special education system responsive to the needs of the children.  Fat chance.  They’re penny-wise and pound foolish.  Save a buck now by delaying ABA evaluations and services, and you’ll get back that neglect ten-fold in a 23 year old who is fully dependent on the state for his/her very survival, for the coming 50-60 years.

    Learn more at http://www.SPEDWatch.org.  As the organization’s founder often says, The children are waiting.

  • jenna

    Poor BPS.  Budgets stretched so thin.  Admin understaffed. Overpaid teachers. Way too many busses puffing diesel into our kids lungs and classrooms daily.  I think they have made many efforts to right this.  In the end, gov’s unwillingness to give public school what they need and instead pass it along to the military shows. 

  • Mara Sanders

     Sorry, but I have a real issue with the amount of money spent for special needs in this state.  Claims that services are “mandated” are incorrect but the schools and towns don’t want to fight the lawyers that the parents hire.  Maybe if the parents spent that lawsuit money on their children, this would be a non-issue.  I know of special needs kids who have personal escorts to go to their classes with them because they are so disruptive.  Who suffers?  The other kids in the class and the taxpayers who pay a guy to hang with a kid every day.  These kids would be better off in a special program rather than sent to regular schools.  I don’t blame the school system for trying to cut back on excessive costs.

    • Jpmacco

      Mara, I understand the frustration, but the ideal is for these students to be “mainstreamed” in a regular classroom without any help. However, they often need guidance and someone to take them from class to class; they often have issues with simple social skills, and need to be escorted for learning purposes. Research has showed that autistic students often receive the best results being mainstreamed with “regular” students in a classroom, as many of their issues are based on social,verbal, informational processing deficits.

      The goal is that we want these students to be as independent as possible. Also, other “regular” students receive a tremendous benefit from being in a classroom with “different” students; it allows them to develop empathy and understanding of differences. They seem to work very well with such students and do not lack in their own learning. Historically, these students were considered “mentally retarded” and put into classrooms which were just not appropriate. Often these students perform at a genius level visually or at other tasks, but perform as underdeveloped at other things; usually socially and verbal. Most “regular” students cannot perform at the same level as autistic students in certain realms. This allows these students to respect autistic students and help them with their deficits.

    • SpedLaw60

      Mara:

      There are state and federal laws which do mandate that children with special needs receive a free and appropriate public education.  A child with special needs has an individual education plan tailored to the unique needs of the child which can include an aide.  The law also requires that children with special needs be educated in the least restrive environment with children without disabilities to the maximum extent possible based on the needs of the individual student.  Furthermore, our children are entitled to equal protection under the law.  Therefore just as we do not have segrefated schools by race or gender we cannot have it by disability. 

      As to the lawsuits parents file – please be aware that most if not all school districts have counsel on staff or on retainer.  Therefore, those parents who wind up hiring counsel because the district is not providing FAPE pay for the district’s counsel through their taxes and their own counsel out of pocket.  Attorneys fees are only recoverable by the parent IF the parent prevails at an administratice hearing AND then spends additional money to file in federal district court AND wins reasonable costs.  I don’t know too many parents of special needs kids with an extra 30-40K lying around simply to harrass the district.

  • Jpmacco

    I am a behavioral therapist working with autistic children on a regular basis. I found it interesting how the mother said her child regressed and now cannot “point”. If he initially knew pointing, it would have been easy for the mother to retain such behavior without a therapist. Simply ask: “What do you want?… use your finger”… model it and reinforce. In my experience that there are too many parents who rely on us without using the same methods outside of sessions. We often only work with these students 4-6 hours a week. Parents need to incorporate such methods to get the best gains. I welcome parents to observe sessions, understand ABA techniques, and use them consistently.

    • Uhavenoidea

      @ jpmacco

      How do you know that the parent was not reinforcing it? Do you have an autistic child?? Please do not judge without knowing and witnessing what is being done at home. The reality is that often times these children need constant therapy from certified professionals and going on for months without this can surly effect them in a negative way…regardless of the efforts of the parents.

  • Jpmacco

    I’m not sure why there are so many angry statements on special ed students. If your child had autism you would not be complaining. Also, MA is rated as having the BEST educational system in this country, with scores that are competitive with every industrialized country in the world. Apparently, some “parents” have not done their research!

    • Uhavenoidea

      I don’t care about statistics. That means nothing when it comes to being under served. Wake up people!!!!

  • nldmom

    Let’s reverse-engineer this scenario, and see whether the “burden
    of special education” concept holds true.

     

    Your child, an A/B student with an aptitude for science,
    suffers a catastrophic injury in a bus accident on a school trip.  After several weeks in critical care, your
    child is stable and ready to begin therapies to regain his abilities.  The doctors announce that your child will
    only regain full function with additional future reconstructive surgeries,
    cognitive rehabilitation therapy, physical therapy, occupational therapy and
    speech therapy weekly for the next 6 to 8 months.  Problem is, you have reached the limit of
    your insurance coverage.  Now you either
    apply for public assistance to continue his health care, or, you pay out of
    pocket and risk bankruptcy.  You know
    your child has the capacity to become a functional adult again if you continue treatment.  The insurance is gone, and the financial
    demands of your child’s care will bankrupt you if you pay out of pocket.  But…you are compelled to do whatever you must
    so your child’s can regain as much function as he is capable of achieving and
    apply for public assistance.

     

    This instance, multiplied by the number of catastrophic
    health crises that occur on a daily basis, and the subsequent burden of reeducation
    and rehabilitation, ultimately impacts all of society.  Health insurance premiums are driven up,
    added burden is placed upon our Medicare/Medicaid system.  Without these therapies, your child cannot
    access the education needed to be a self-supporting, independent adult.  The burden to society goes on, ad
    infinitum. 

     

    Children born with disabilities haven’t yet had
    the chance to prove they can be the A/B student with an aptitude for
    science, and are full of promise for the future.  Before they even have a chance, they are
    labeled as burdens to the education system, too expensive, and not worth the
    services and therapies which would, in 80 to 90% of the cases, allow them to be as academically proficient
    as their non-disabled peers.

     

    As a society in general, we are not at all educated about
    the truths of learning differences and how very effective appropriate supports
    and specialized instruction truly is. 
    The bottom line, is that all children must be educated, without
    discrimination—period.  The resources
    we should be most ashamed of wasting, are the hidden strengths and talents of those
    students who are being robbed of the chance to become successful, contributing
    members of society.  They can indeed
    achieve.  I know this, both as an RN and
    a parent of a child with learning differences. 
    I am blessed to see this happening in my son’s life and those of his
    classmates our family has come to know.  At
    one time, these were children who were left in the dust by our educational
    system.  Why?  Because of gross misperceptions that they are
    just too expensive to educate and not worth any long term potential.  That notion is just plain wrong, ignorant and
    unethical.

     

    If there is anything that must be done to make this
    situation better, it is certainly not doing away with special education.  What we need are educators who are truly
    educated about the realities of learning differences, educators who are willing
    to lobby for more appropriate funding of IDEA mandates and state circuit
    breaker funds, and competent educators who will not cave to corruption and
    misappropriate funds intended to finance special education.  It is not difficult to find examples of that,
    just take a look at the recent case of the Merrimack Special Educational
    Collaborative, where a state audit identified more than $37 million in
    questionable or undocumented expenses. They included lavish spending on golf
    outings, unjustified salary expenses, etc…etc….

     

    Stop the scapegoating. 
    Stop the waste of human potential. 
    Put the focus on fixing the real problems in our educational
    system.

     

    To learn more visit http://www.SPEDWatch.org

     

    Proud mom of a student with learning differences and
    SPEDWatch member of four years.

  • pan

    There needs to be a better way of funding special needs services. 

    Education for special needs students shouldn’t come out of regular education budgets — this pits special needs students against the rest. 

    It needs to be funded at the state or national level, i.e. at whatever level of government established rights  to these services.

    Otherwise it’s a very burdensome, and unlimited liability unfunded mandate on the localities, especially those with the most litigious parents.

    We are a rich country, and we can afford social services, but funding for these programs needs to be decided democratically, within the political system (which has taxing power), not through litigation and the courts (which do not have taxing power).

  • nldmom

    Special education laws are both Federal (IDEA) and
    state mandated.  These mandates are
    funded by the state and Federal government, however, funding is completely inadequate.  What many don’t realize, is that every school
    district earmarks funds for legal expenses in their annual budgets,
    specifically, to fight parents who advocate for their child’s right to appropriate
    educational services.  All the while, budget
    cuts are employed across the board, not only to general education, but special
    education as well.  Parents don’t WANT to
    litigate…we are FORCED to litigate by the pervasive, systemic, INTENTIONAL denial
    of services.  Yes, it is really that
    ridiculous.

     

    Should we accept that any student cognitively able to read
    at an 8th grade level (or higher) reach high school with 1st
    grade level reading ability?  It happens
    all the time!  Education should never be
    parsed out, based on whether someone is an average student, a special needs
    student, or an advanced placement student. 
    Each student should receive the
    education they require and is appropriate…no more, no less.  Our law states that every child has the
    right to a free and appropriate public education, and it has done so for over
    30 years.  Let’s stop spinning our
    wheels and educate every child!  Fixing the broken educational system is what needs to factor most heavily into this equation.

    Please take time to look at the http://www.spedwatch.org 
    website.  Become a member and join us in this quest.

  • Elizabeth Juanita Campbell

    Unfortunately, the parents of Massachusetts (the USA….all 50 states) are not aware that they are not only fighting the School Districts, but they are fighting federal  Judges and Justices on the Supreme Court who  say one thing, and do another! 
        They are totally unaware of the vast  hypocrisy and how they are made pawns:  How they are set-up and mocked and scorned: 
        How  the Special Education  statues and the U.S. Constitution no longer means a thing!  But God is watching!

    The u.s judicial system is one of utter chaos and lawlessness!

  • sharon

    I have a radical idea. Instead of blaming schools and demanding endless services, why not work more with your own child?

  • sharon

    i think aba is crap and adds anxiety but thats just me

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