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New law aids parents of special needs children in dealing with school districts

Sarah Grantham, 6, and her mother, Kate, play in their front yard in Tampa. Sarah recently was placed in a special center instead of a neighborhood school, something some parents opt for when told during IEP negotiations that funding limits what services can be provided at neighborhood schools.
Published Jul. 21, 2013

TAMPA — For three hours Kate Grantham faced a panel of school officials to hash out a plan for her daughter's education.

About half that time, the two sides discussed how much physical therapy the school would give Sarah, who has a condition that resembles cerebral palsy.

"I tried to use all the sales words I've learned along the way," Grantham said. "Like, if this were your child, would you be satisfied with 30 minutes? I was getting very irritated."

It is a task parents of special needs children sometimes dread: the summit to discuss a student's "individual education plan."

Held annually, or sometimes more frequently, the meetings result in a legal document, called an IEP, that outlines a child's learning goals and what educators will do to help meet them.

They can be daunting, confrontational affairs, as educators and parents often disagree on a course that works best for both the district and the child.

A new Florida law aims to give parents a leg up by helping them better understand their rights and limiting what districts can mandate without their consent. It affects roughly 350,000 students statewide, including more than 50,000 in Tampa Bay.

The measure was introduced by Republican state Sens. Andy Gardiner of Orlando and John Thrasher of St. Augustine. Both have relatives with Down syndrome — Gardiner a son and Thrasher a grandson.

It requires signed documents attesting that no one discouraged a parent from bringing an advocate or other adult witness to an IEP meeting.

It mandates parents give their consent before the district can place a student on a special education diploma track — something that happens as early as elementary school — or moves a child from a typical school to a special center.

Districts must disclose how much state funding they are getting for a child's services. And there is a mandatory 10-day notice to schedule the meetings, addressing the complaint that parents sometimes are called in at the last minute.

In addition to IEPs, the law applies to documents such as the 504 plan, which provides accommodations under the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Especially significant, said Tallahassee attorney and advocate Ann Siegel: "We finally have a definition for inclusion."

The new law defines inclusion as an education in a regular class "reflecting natural proportions and age-appropriate heterogeneous groups" in core academic classes and electives.

What's more, it says, "a student with a disability is a valued member of the classroom and school community," and teachers and administrators must be equipped to teach all children.

To some degree, advocates say, the new measure clarifies provisions that already exist under federal law, which entitles disabled children to a "free appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment."

In reality, however, parents often feel overmatched at IEP meetings, especially if the child's issues require a large number of therapists and administrators around the table.

When told that funding limits make it impossible to provide all kinds of services at a neighborhood school, some parents agree to send their kids to centers instead.

"They try to make you feel like, 'We're all in it for the best interest of the child,' but there's always that feeling that it's you against them," said Grantham, whose daughter, now 6, recently was placed in a special center.

Roberta Moore of Tampa told the Hillsborough County School Board she agreed to put her child on a special diploma track so his FCAT scores would not hurt the school grade.

"There's a complete intimidation factor," said Scott Tobia of Apollo Beach, whose daughter has medical needs and motor deficiencies stemming from a mitochondrial disorder that affects her metabolism.

Tobia has waged several battles with the Hillsborough district since Laura, now 7, entered kindergarten.

"You have 10 different people around the table," he said. "If you take an advocate, they bring an attorney."

Opinions differ as to whether the new law will create slightly more paperwork or truly change the tenor of meetings.

Hillsborough special education advocate Claudia Roberts said she is encouraged by a provision that requires districts to assess every three years how well they are practicing inclusion.

Those assessments will provide important data, Roberts said, and "data that is measured and reported can be a very valuable tool in making changes to the way students are being educated."

In Pasco County, ESE director Melissa Musselwhite said her district already collaborates with the Florida Inclusion Network. Pasco allows parents to bring advocates and observers to IEP meetings and make audio recordings. "A lot of this will require us to make adjustments, but a lot of it also is work we already do," she said.

The most dramatic change, she said, will come from the requirement that the district allow private therapists to work with children in the schools.

But she said that's mostly a logistical issue, as school officials will need to make sure there is not too great a disruption to instruction.

Also unclear is how the state will reconcile testing provisions in the law with a federal mandate that all children, regardless of disabilities, take standardized tests for purposes of school accountability.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@tampabay.com.

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