By Alice Doyel
Part Four of a Four-Part Series on Dyslexia
Spoiler Alert: This Mother/Lawyer won a significant victory for Washington state students.
Question: Could that give this Mom leverage to get her own child-appropriate and timely services?
This mother has worked as an attorney on disability education issues for over twenty years. She has represented families with unmet special education needs. She also worked at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, and she has been a district Student Civil Rights Compliance Officer. For privacy, I am using substitute names for both the mother and her daughter.
Kindergarten to Fourth Grades
Emma was cognitively tested in kindergarten and scored in the “average,” “high average,” and “superior” ranges. However, in second grade she needed extra reading help. By third grade, Emma stubbornly limited her own reading to graphic novels with visual plots. She started to express extreme self-doubt to her mother and began to call herself “stupid.” Her writing lacked proper spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar. But Emma’s third-grade teacher said this was normal. By fourth grade, Emma could not finish long writing projects and cried at having to end them all “to be continued.”
No one told her mother that Emma was leaving the classroom in tears and hiding in the school bathroom. But her mom noticed new, huge emotional meltdowns at home, so she talked to the fourth-grade teacher. He also did not see any issues. He said, “Emma’s only problem was comparing herself to her friends who are really smart.” As Emma fell further behind, her mother was told she was “expecting too much” of Emma.
As discussed in my first installment on dyslexia, Emma is a prime example of how girls’ needs are ignored because they hide their frustration. Boys act out. Girls self-blame.
Sylvia decided she needed to seek outside help for Emma. Sylvia had Emma assessed by a speech and language therapist paid for by insurance. Although the therapist suspected dyslexia and anxiety, she was unable to make a diagnosis. She recommended intervention services and then a review.
Sylvia shared the therapist’s report with the school. However, a meeting with the School Intervention Team (SIT) was delayed for months by a long waiting line. So, Sylvia got Emma into weekly, private tutoring for students with dyslexia at Hamlin Robinson School (HRS). Ten weeks of tutoring cost $760, and Emma had to miss her math class once a week to attend. Near the end of the school year, Sylvia finally got Emma’s teacher to agree to bypass the SIT. Emma could join a small group of students who received reading intervention services (Sylvia wonders how many of these kids might also have undiagnosed Dyslexia).
At the end of fourth grade, Emma tested below grade level in reading. Like Olivia’s mother in the last posting, Sylvia decided to pay for an expensive ($1,500) neuropsychological evaluation by a private practitioner for definitive diagnoses. While waiting for the results, Sylvia paid for Emma to attend a 3 ½ week summer program for students with language-based learning differences at HRS.
The neuropsychologist provided his diagnoses right before fifth grade started. Emma has a complex profile: an IQ above the ninety-fifth percentile, moderate Dyslexia, inattentive ADHD (which Emma self-identified), and Anxiety. He recommended medication, therapy, and special education services in reading and writing. Because of her late start in getting academic intervention services, he also recommended increasing Emma’s private tutoring to twice a week.
Fifth grade and Finally the SIT Meeting
Schools are allowed 25 school days for a referral determination and 35 school days for evaluation (about 12 weeks in all). Their practice is to take the full time. At the referral meeting, it was agreed that a District evaluation was needed. But the school psychologist disagreed with the private neuropsychologist’s reading assessment. She did not assess Emma’s reading herself but relied on Emma’s new teacher’s report that Emma read “at grade level.” The IEP team decided that accommodations and special education writing services were appropriate. But Emma was denied special education reading services. Sylvia disagreed. She argued first that the team did not consider the neuropsychologist’s assessment. And second, the team did not consider the effect of the private tutoring and summer school Emma had already received, at her mom’s expense, for her dyslexia.
Sylvia knew her legal options, but to gain an objective view, she consulted with another attorney. First, she could have a Due Process Hearing before an administrative judge. This is both adversarial and expensive. Second, Sylvia could go to mediation. But Sylvia had already reached out to school district administrators to resolve concerns. The district said it stood by the school psychologist’s report. And she got no response to a request to meet. So, Sylvia went with the third option. She filed a Citizen’s Complaint to the Washington State Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Despite her professional background, it was still nerve-wracking as a parent. She took comfort in the fact that OSPI staff are trained to identify legal issues and impartially investigate parents’ concerns.
OSPI Decides in Sylvia’s Favor and More
After investigation, OSPI agreed with Sylvia’s Citizen Complaint. They found the school did not take into consideration the effect of Emma’s private summer school and tutoring, which was specific to dyslexia. OSPI also found that the district did not document the reading assessment done with valid test tools by the private neuropsychologist and ignored it.
OSPI saw what happened to Emma as a systemic problem. It ordered Seattle Public Schools to train all of its psychologists to carefully document all assessment results and consider the effects of private services when making eligibility and service determinations.
The result for Emma: In April of 2020, at the end of her fifth-grade year, she finally received an IEP that addresses all of her needs.
Addendum: In 2018, a state law was passed requiring school districts to assess students with reading and writing difficulties for dyslexia by third grade. It will start happening in 2021-2022! It was too late for Emma, but it should help other kids with dyslexia.
OSPI In-Depth Links on Dyslexia Screening
[For Shorter and Simpler Links, See Part 3 of this 4-part series on Dyslexia]