Friday, December 2, 2011

The Gross Family

As a parent, I claim the right to participate and manage the education of my children, but since moving to Nebraska this power has been seriously limited, if not non-existent.

I am the mother of two dyslexic children, both with health issues, one of them serious. In my case, I tangled with my principal as I advocated for my dyslexic son's legal rights in his educational placement. In doing so, I was labeled as an uncooperative parent and opened myself up to Nebraska's new invasive "truancy" law.

What may appear to be my non-compliance or defiance with a school district is merely my advocacy to provide my child the Free and Appropriate Education to which he is entitled under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). My professional training and experience in special education gives me a unique perspective, and the reality is that the school district has been negligent in abiding by the laws that govern special education and quick to apply the "truancy" law as a hammer to compel cooperation when it suits them. We have felt threatened by Elkhorn Public Schools, and even Nebraska law enforcement because of their actions, but we will defend our family. We will advocate for our Rights.

Our story begins when, to be closer to family and have a more positive educational experience for our entire family, we moved to a small Nebraska town from Texas. Two years later, we moved to Omaha to enroll in Elkhorn Public Schools (EPS). Elkhorn came highly recommended for our two special education kids. While we looked for a house in the Elkhorn district, our son was enrolled as a Temporary Non-Resident student at Elkhorn South High School. Our younger child, on the other hand, was enrolled in a private school.

At our first meeting in August to discuss our son's education plan, we requested the reading program which had been recommended in the recently performed independent evaluation, with a history of scientific research in dyslexia remediation. We also discussed our son's verification of "Other Health Impaired" due to chronic illnesses. Independent experts in the field had informed us of the need to have "excessive absences" as an accommodation in his Individualized Education Plan (IEP), as well as establish an Individualized Health Plan. EPS was provided copies of both at the time of enrollment with physician signatures.

Being a parent who is also a professional with almost 30 years of experience, many of those years in the field of Special Education, as well as possessing a Master's degree as a Dyslexia Specialist, I sought an "Independent Educational Evaluation" (IEE) by a Pediatric Neuropsychologist. We based our request for our son's educational placement with Elkhorn South on the IEE. As parents, however, we also based it on an extensive evaluation from Texas Scottish Rite Center for Dyslexia (same recommendation), evaluations from previous Pediatric Neuropsychologists (same recommendation), tests, public school evaluations, homework, class work, readability of texts, etc. Our request was based on our years of experience in public and private schools with our son, scholarly research, reading programs which have worked and haven't worked, and information provided from EPS, including progress our son has and hasn't made.

To our knowledge, EPS based their decision on the fact they only offer one type of reading program, which, by the way, is absent of important components necessary for students with dyslexia. These components cannot be implemented by untrained staff as "strategies," nor can this type of programming be performed by district staff merely by reading a manual.

I was informed a week or so later that the district had no intention of providing the reading service we requested and agreed upon in our meeting. We removed our son from the district's reading program, which had been a compromise we reached to obtain the recommended services from the IEE. The district's program does not meet his particular needs, and without meeting our sons identified needs, his overall reading progress will reach a ceiling and he will not reach his literacy potential. The district responded by subdividing another class of his into a smaller class for "reading fluency and comprehension." This class was supervised by a Para-professional who "worked in the office," and contained four other students who it seemed, were low functioning. This class met in a completely separate room with a separate "teacher". We immediately found this placement not only inappropriate, but harmful to our child.

I requested information from the principal, but it was not forthcoming. As parents, we decided until we received it, it was in the best interest of our son to keep him out of the class that day. We had already begun getting him the reading remediation the district had refused and the time would be well spent. Hopefully the requested information would be obtained, or other options could be explored.

Instead, I was threatened with truancy.

As parents, with no educational options or alternatives offered, it's difficult to view any email in which a principal responds by saying "attendance is non-negotiable," and using the word "truancy," as anything but a threat. EPS claims they were just "informing" us about the "truancy law." To even offer "information" on truancy in a situation where it is presented as the only alternative to a problematic situation is in and of itself a threat.

What followed next is almost unspeakable. Within 12 hours of being threatened by the ESHS principal with "truancy" prosecution, I received a phone call from the Assistant Superintendent at EPS telling me our youngest child, who had never been enrolled in the Elkhorn district and was attending a private school, was truant.

That's right. My child attending a NDE accredited private school was truant.

Despite the fact that my youngest child had been in school the entire time, Steve Baker and his staff made a referral to the Douglas County District Attorney's office for truancy against my youngest child who was neither living in his district nor had ever been enrolled in any of his schools. The referral went through County Attorney's Office and on to Child Protective Services.

I grew up in Nebraska. I brought my children back because we thought the Midwest values of family and freedom still existed. We thought coming home to Nebraska would be the best thing for our kids. We believed when we were told that Elkhorn schools would reflect those values in their professional ethics and values, and model those for our children. After all, this is where we learned them.

But I guess we were wrong.

Aside from the disappointment of not finding the positive educational experience and community for which we had prayed, we find a truancy law that not only violates district policy, but State and Federal regulations for students in Special Education. There isn't even an appeal process before a referral is made to the County Attorney for Special Ed students. It is a violation of a student's Civil Rights under the Federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA). Try to find a Special Ed attorney in Nebraska who doesn't work for a school district though.

As a parent of 2 dyslexic children with serious health issues, and a cancer survivor myself, I have fought to live, I have fought to keep my children alive, and I have had to fight to obtain an education for them. Because of that, my relationship with my children is sacred and hallowed ground. The law is diminished by the inappropriate application of the law by individuals in positions of power and authority. To go after my children because of a problem they have with me is outrageous, but that is the abuse this law allows.

Carrie Gross
Elkhorn Public Schools
Omaha, NE

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