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December 4, 2004

In special ed, silence speaks volumes

From: Dallas Morning News - Dallas,TX,USA - Dec 4, 2004

Resolution rare for parents who challenge schools over treatment

By SCOTT PARKS / The Dallas Morning News

Leo King watches his brother and two sisters go off to school each morning. He wants to go, too. Instead, he sits strapped into his wheelchair, watching television all day inside his family's small apartment.

Leo, 15, a sophomore at Samuell High School, has been recuperating from third-degree burns to his left hand since Oct. 18. His parents believe someone at Samuell held his hands under scalding water and then denied anything happened. Other parents and a local advocacy group also have raised concerns about the way special education students at Samuell have been treated.

Leo is too disabled to speak for himself. School staff members have told investigators they did not see the incident. Officially, the Dallas Independent School District does not acknowledge that he was injured on campus.

Special education experts say Leo's case is not unusual. Facts and proof are difficult to come by when the victims are severely disabled and can't speak for themselves. Parents rarely prevail when they take on the school system in such cases.

"Resolution of these things in terms of truth and remedies is very difficult," said Dr. Perry Zirkel, professor of law and education at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He has studied hundreds of civil cases in which parents challenge a school district's treatment of their disabled children.

"You have very low success rates for parents," Dr. Zirkel said.

Keith Shine, Leo's stepfather, has become one of those frustrated parents. He said his family is trapped in a kind of education limbo.

"They got Leo in a very big bind," he said.

According to Mr. Shine, "they" are the Dallas police and DISD. He said he can't understand why no one has been arrested, suspended or fired. Investigators say they are still looking into the case.

"We are still trying to piece together what happened," said Elton Fite, the Dallas police detective assigned to the case. "We have not closed it out."

DISD officials say they want to see Leo back in school as soon as he recuperates, but Mr. Shine said he is reluctant to send him back to Samuell because he might get hurt again.

Rosemarie Allen, DISD's associate superintendent for special education, said she understands Mr. Shine's concern. She said Leo could transfer to Woodrow Wilson High School, which offers the services he needs.

"It's the nearest unit that is not full," Dr. Allen said.

Woodrow is 10 miles from Leo's apartment in Pleasant Grove. Mr. Shine says Leo could not tolerate such a long bus ride every day.

"He gets stressed out on a ride that long," Mr. Shine said.

The only other options are to educate Leo at home or to move to another school district. Neither of those options appeals to the family.

"We just don't know what to do right now," Mr. Shine said.

Similar stories

Mr. Shine is not the only parent who has questions about how Samuell High School treats its severely disabled students.

Wanda Williams said Samuell teachers and staff badly handled an incident in which her son, Greg Taylor, was injured. Greg, 14, is a lot like Leo: He is afflicted by cerebral palsy, nonverbal and uses a wheelchair.

Ms. Williams said a school nurse called her midmorning on Sept. 17 to say that Greg was "throwing up on everything" and that he would be sent home early on the bus.

"She never said anything about him being injured when his wheelchair fell over," Ms. Williams said.

When she met him at the bus, the first thing she noticed was a big knot above his left eye. The bus driver didn't know what happened, Ms. Williams said.

She said she sees similarities between her son's story and Leo's story. In both cases, she said, Samuell staff members left out important facts when they first notified parents of a problem.

Mr. Shine said his first contact with Samuell after Leo's injury came in a phone call from the school about 2:45 p.m. on the day he was injured. The caller – he can't remember who it was – said that Leo was picking at his skin and that his fingernails needed trimming.

"No one said anything about him being burned," Mr. Shine said.

When Leo arrived home on the bus, his family found a minor burn on his right wrist. A thin gauze bandage covered a severe burn on his left hand. They rushed him to a hospital.

When Ms. Williams discovered that Greg was injured, she called for an ambulance. He was taken to Children's Medical Center Dallas, where doctors found minor injuries to his head and to his left testicle. Apparently, a metal bar between Greg's legs – to keep him from sliding out of his wheelchair – had damaged his testicle when the wheelchair fell over.

Greg was injured on a Friday. Sometime over the weekend, Ms. Williams said, she found a note from Greg's teacher in his bookbag. It said his wheelchair was "accidentally turned over" when a fellow student ran between him and a table.

"We checked on him, and he was fine," the note said.

Ms. Williams, a certified nurse's assistant, said she believes the school failed to properly evaluate Greg's injuries immediately after the incident.

"I freaked out when I realized they didn't even have the nurse look at him when it happened," she said.

Ms. Williams said she insisted that Greg be moved to a different classroom for special education students.

But she said school officials told her that he could not be transferred to another high school.

During an interview Monday, Dr. Allen said she was unaware of the Greg Taylor case.

"I'll look into it," she said.

Samuell is home to the regional school for the deaf in addition to the classes for the most severely disabled students in DISD. Including the deaf, about 300 special education students are enrolled at Samuell, compared with an average of 150 at other high schools, Dr. Allen said.

Samuell is also well-known to Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit, federally funded public-interest law firm. It represents special education students and their families when they run into problems with school districts, ranging from injuries to disputes over the quality of education.

"We do a lot of business at Samuell," said Elise Mitchell, a lawyer for Advocacy Inc. in Dallas.

Cases at Samuell

So is Samuell High School harder on its special education students than any other DISD high school?

Dr. Allen said: "No, that is not my impression."

Advocacy Inc. records show that the agency intervened in four cases at Samuell from 2002-04:

•A 19-year-old deaf student was expelled after a female student accused him of molesting her at school on Nov. 4, 2003. DISD was ready to place the student in an alternative school when Advocacy Inc. intervened.

Ms. Mitchell said she produced evidence that showed police had not arrested or charged the student with a crime and that DISD had not investigated the case. Instead, DISD had relied on the female student's uncorroborated testimony to justify discipline.

After a hearing, DISD reversed the expulsion.

•The mother of a 17-year-old mentally retarded boy who had become a discipline problem in class called Advocacy Inc. for help after becoming frustrated with school officials. Ms. Mitchell said a review of records found that DISD had identified the boy as deaf at 4 years old. Somehow, the district had stopped giving him deaf education services in junior high school.

Advocacy Inc. worked with DISD to establish a more challenging education plan for the boy, including training that might eventually allow him to communicate with people through a special computer keyboard hooked to an electronic voice.

•The parents of a 16-year-old mentally retarded student believed their son would benefit from contact with regular students in mainstream classes. After school officials didn't agree, they contacted Advocacy Inc.

"We were able to get him some mainstreaming and a better education plan than before," Ms. Mitchell said.

•The law firm also assisted a 14-year-old mentally retarded girl with an auditory processing disorder that effectively rendered her deaf. Ms. Mitchell said the school district did not want to provide deaf education services, arguing that she would not benefit because of her retardation.

"We ended up putting together a nice program for her," Ms. Mitchell said.

Citing privacy concerns, Dr. Allen declined to discuss the four cases.

"We recognize the role of Advocacy Inc. and try to collaborate with them," she said. "We recognize what our responsibilities are and what their responsibilities are."

Pitfalls in special ed

Dr. Zirkel, the Lehigh University professor, has no firsthand knowledge of Samuell High School and its students. But his research on similar cases had led him to identify common elements in the everyday attempts to educate severely disabled students in public schools.

A special education classroom can be a stressful environment. Teachers and aides are asked to meet federal and state educational requirements with too few resources and too little training.

The natural emotional attachment to a child is magnified with special education parents. Clashes with school officials have led to increasing litigation since the 1980s, according to Dr. Zirkel.

"The cases are often bewildering in terms of the facts," he said. "Deliberate indifference and bad faith are hard to prove."


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