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When all else fails, parents of special-needs students turn to social media

Published Sep. 28, 2014

TAMPA — A chance meeting in a Sarasota restaurant put Amanda Taylor, the mother of a special-needs student, in touch with activist Jon Singer.

Taylor described the frustration she was having getting her daughter the services she needed at Robinson Elementary School in Plant City.

Singer, who works in financial services and splits his time between Sarasota and New Jersey, offered to put her story on his Facebook page. Taylor approved the scathing diatribe against the Hillsborough County School District, packaged with pictures of 8-year-old Alexis.

"The day I went public, the school knew," said Taylor, a divorced mother of four. "Within five hours, the principal, ESE (exceptional student education) specialist and teacher told me, 'We're on your side, Amanda.' I just couldn't believe what was coming out of their mouths."

Social media shaming increasingly is a tactic parents employ when calling, emailing or sitting through individual educational plan, or IEP, meetings does not get the results they seek.

School officials say they do what is best for children, according to the law and best practices, regardless of what parents might say on social media.

But some parents believe otherwise. Taylor says her campaign got fast attention for Alexis, who has spina bifida, although the issues are far from resolved.

In South Tampa, Henry Frost, who has autism, was able to attend his neighborhood school after a Facebook campaign in late 2012.

"I Stand With Henry," which featured a video that paid homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was Henry's idea, said his mother, Lauri Hunt. "It's his platform," she said.

In recent weeks Henry posted that Wilson Middle School took him off the rolls after he missed too many days because of medical issues. On Sept. 16, Henry posted that he's back in Wilson.

Alexis' issue was not placement but services. Taylor said her daughter is on-level intellectually but behind academically. She says the trouble started in kindergarten, where Alexis was in a class of children with disabilities. "Every time I came in they would be painting or watching movies," she said.

In the older grades there were disagreements over whether Alexis could get out of her wheelchair and walk with her leg braces, and whether the staff was putting the braces on her properly. Taylor said Alexis was excluded from recess and did not get resources she needed to catch up academically.

School officials are prohibited by law from discussing individual students publicly, so these accounts come entirely from the parents. The Tampa Bay Times attempted to discuss the social media shaming tactic with ESE general manager Maryann Parks, but she declined "because it doesn't have any effect," said spokesman Stephen Hegarty.

Federal law assures special-needs children a free, appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

But those terms are open to interpretation. School officials often consider special schools, or special classes that are in some schools but not others, both appropriate and safe.

Advocates of inclusion often push for students to be mixed in with their peers who aren't disabled, with aides to support them. Although the district gets federal funding for its roughly 29,000 special-needs students, officials say that funding does not cover all expenses. At the same time, district officials typically say their decisions are not affected by cost.

Singer fought his own very explosive battles with the school district of Tenafly, N.J. "I don't even call them animals," he said of the school officials. "It's like an insult to dogs."

He created a Facebook page. "I had 8,000 followers," he said. "People started saying 'I need your help.' Others said, 'I'd like to help.' "

Taylor's story appeared on Singer's page, Drive4Rebecca. He takes most of the credit for terms like "HELLSborough County" and MaryEllen EVILia," for superintendent MaryEllen Elia. He called her the "Torturer in Chief."

If Elia and her staff were offended, Taylor said she is fine with that. "I'm offended about the way they're treating my child," she said.

Immediately after the posting, she said, the school staff met with her to learn how to put Alexis' braces on properly. They offered math materials she could use to help Alexis at home, but she said they didn't follow through and numerous issues remain. "It's been up and down," she said.

Singer said he advises parents to "get people involved from day one, the minute you start emailing the superintendent about your child. That way it's out there."

Too often, he said, parents assume it's a zero-sum game, with enough money available for only some children. Or they fear retaliation.

School districts "have lawyers on their side," Singer said. "It's so stacked in their favor and the majority of people don't know their rights and they can't afford a lawyer."

Hegarty said families have many avenues of recourse without resorting to public attacks.

"Parents have lots of different ways to try to communicate: phone calls, emails, calling reporters, calling board members. And now social media," he said.

"The best way to affect the decision is to sit down in an IEP meeting or other meeting and work with the school district. We have dedicated, caring people who work with families every day and work hard to get to 'yes' on some very complicated cases."

Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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