By Alice Doyel
By age 5, Sebastian had an unusual history for a Seattle-born child. His mother was a Seattleite, while his father came to the US from Germany. Since Sebastian has Down Syndrome, his parents knew that choosing the best educational options was important for him. So at age 1, Sebastian and his family moved to Germany, which has good early childhood intervention programs.
Sebastian enrolled in a supportive program, taught in German. Sebastian also learned English and American Sign Language at home from his mother, Chelle. Though Sebastian has limited verbal expression, he has multi-lingual comprehension.
When looking into elementary school programs, Sebastian’s family determined that German schools were not as inclusive as they desired. Feeling US schools would be better in this area as dictated by federal laws, the family planned their return to Seattle the summer before kindergarten began.
This was a challenging summer for the family. Having left as an infant, even the family home to which they returned was a new place for Sebastian. His parents helped Sebastian make this adjustment, got their own lives set up, and endeavored to get Sebastian into school with appropriate accommodations until an IEP was developed.
A few days before the kindergarten Jump Start (a kindergarten orientation program) week began, Chelle spoke with the principal regarding Sebastian’s strengths and his needs for support. The principal responded positively regarding inclusion. She sounded welcoming and interested in having Sebastian in this school, which is less than a mile from their home.
At this time Sebastian was not potty-trained, but Chelle would come to the school as needed to change diapers. Sebastian also needed someone in the classroom to catch him if he randomly walked off.
The next meeting Chelle had with the school principal also included a district Special Education Specialist. Chelle told them that academically Sebastian was behind because German preschools are activity- and play-based. Sebastian had not learned to sit at a table and do worksheets.
The Specialist said he would create a 504 Plan, so they could request special services before the IEP evaluations and meeting. Sebastian got a fabulous paraeducator support person almost immediately.
However, the Specialist ominously stated that Sebastian’s family could go ahead and enroll him in a different school – one that had special education classrooms. He explained that this is where the district usually serves students with Sebastian’s level of needs.
Chelle was shocked. She feared that Sebastian’s school selection could be made without his parents’ agreement, even without their input, without the Specialist ever meeting Sebastian. She believed that was contrary to what the laws stated.
Over the next months, Sebastian gradually adjusted to his neighborhood school. Now it was the week of Thanksgiving. The IEP meeting was set with the presumption that Sebastian would stay at his neighborhood school, or so Chelle was led to believe.
The Specialist joined the IEP meeting, unexpectedly for Chelle. The school administrator and staff, especially the paraeducator, spoke glowingly of Sebastian’s progress. Contradictorily, the Specialist said Sebastian should be placed at the alternative school with special education classrooms as of January 1, three school weeks away.
Chelle felt gaslighted. She was not notified that school placement was even up for discussion, much less decided without her family’s consent. All the information from his school indicated Sebastian was considered a positive part of the school’s community. There was no indication from them that Sebastian should leave.
Some of the district’s arguments for keeping Sebastian from his neighborhood school were spurious, even ridiculous:
- Sebastian had difficulty walking the many stairs at this neighborhood school, particularly when going to the playground. The school would not allow him access to the elevator. His paraeducator helped him take a more circuitous route, being outside for a short time. The district saw this as a reason for Sebastian to go to the alternative school. Chelle wondered if a student with typical intelligence was in a wheelchair, would the district say there were too many stairs?
- Special education minutes were used inappropriately. Navigating stairs was designated special education because this practice happens without other students involved. Toileting and handwashing were deemed education minutes because they would happen in a bathroom connected to the Focus classroom (assuming placement at the alternative school). Chelle stated that stairs should be considered physical therapy, and toileting should be an accommodation.
- Chelle was told that Sebastian was the only child at this school with disabilities, and that he may be happier with other students who were like him. Chelle reasoned that every student would be the only one at this school with a disability if they kept sending each student with a disability away to other schools. Why not have Sebastian stay, and then the next student with a disability would not be alone? Non-disabled students should have the opportunity to be included with students with disabilities, as we are all part of the same world.
Chelle reached out to experienced special education parents. She found out that activities listed as needing special education time could be done in general education settings. Chelle requested a follow-up IEP meeting. She followed a recommendation to contact Lara Hruska, the attorney who founded Cedar Law*, a firm representing parents/guardian/students who have conflicts with school issues.
Lara Hruska and Shannon McMinimee of Cedar Law took the following steps to strengthen Sebastian’s inclusive education:
- Advised Chelle in her communication with the district;
- Wrote the request for a Due Process Hearing, contesting the district excluding Sebastian from his neighborhood school;
- Took depositions for the hearing, six proposed in all, showing how well Sebastian was progressing and accepted at his neighborhood school; and
- Helped Sebastian get part-time placement at his neighborhood school, which allowed Sebastian to access 78% of his time at school with the remainder as home-schooling. This maximized Sebastian’s general education hours and allowed him to access related services and academic support at school.
For my next blog entry, Lara Hruska will explain how all of these effective measures worked for Sebastian’s inclusive education. These are measures many families can use when dealing with special education issues.
* Cedar Law uses sliding scale billing for clients who have financial needs.