The story of Linda and Sara

By Josh King

The daughter of a single mother, Linda, Sara is a twin. While her brother appears to be adequately served by his particular school in the district, Sara was born with some special needs that CCSD has never wanted to address.

Sara is now in the fifth grade and doing quite well — but it’s no thanks to the Clark County School District.

Initially the district placed a “specific learning disability” label on Sara, segregated her away from normal children, with other children facing a variety of problems.

By the end of the first grade, Sara was clearly declining. At that point, Linda sought legal assistance to get her daughter reclassified, and succeeded in getting Sara moved into a general-education setting, augmented with extra resources.

Unfortunately, the blanket, one-size-fits-all policies CCSD applies to special-needs children frequently fail to produce any progress. And that was the case with Sara.

Rather than trying something different, or adjusting its approach, the school district decided that the lack of progress must have been because Sara was “intellectually disabled” and labeled her as such.

Not only did CCSD want to write that conclusion into Sara’s federally required Individualized Education Program, or IEP, the staff also, once again, sought to move Sara back into the same segregated environment in which she previously regressed.

Fed up, and knowing her daughter better than did the district bureaucrats, Linda in 2015 took her to a renowned doctor widely recognized for his success helping children.

What his testing revealed was that Sara was not “intellectually disabled,” but instead had a neurodevelopmental motor disorder that afflicted her ability to learn and process language.

Affecting her taking of the tests given by CCSD, that disorder was behind the apparently low IQ scores that CCSD had, ineptly, fastened upon.

Sara was actually too high-functioning, said the specialist, to be labeled “intellectually disabled.”

What she had instead, he said, was a developmental motor disorder known as developmental dyspraxia.

According to the CanChild research group at Canada’s McMaster University, dyspraxia affects 5 to 6 percent of all school-age children, usually boys.

It is often associated with other difficult disorders, and that was also true in Sara’s case, said the four-page report of analysis and recommendations that Linda soon took to CCSD.

Although the district was legally obligated under federal law to review and consider any such expert documents provided by Linda, it made little pretense of doing so.

That’s also been the experience of other parents, who’ve also privately paid for superior professional evaluations.

Instead, in Linda’s IEP meetings with school representatives, CCSD staff simply dismissed the outside evaluator’s report.

Though Linda provided other reports and even brought her experts to the meetings, CCSD’s IEP team still continued to mislabel Sara.

Moreover, they insisted on continuing to do the things that were not working. They were deeply invested in keeping the label, “intellectually disabled,” and refused to acknowledge that Sara could learn.

In 2017, however, a new school psychologist replaced the previous one. This psychologist — differing from the earlier one — actually, just like Sara, could learn.

Having newly evaluated Sara, the new psychologist documented that that Sara had highly functional adaptive skills and did not fit the criteria of “Intellectually Disabled.”

Nevertheless, CCSD still found her profoundly deficient in all areas, and thus meeting the criteria of “ID.”

The straw that forced Linda to remove Sara from CCSD is when its bureaucracy put her in a K-3 resource class as a fifth grader — an explicit violation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) law, under the terms of which CCSD receives millions of federal dollars.

In part because of the pressures and stress arising out of CCSD’s treatment of Sara, Linda’s marriage had also, increasingly, been failing — ultimately entering the courts as a child custody case.

During that case, the principal of Sara’s previous school — testifying on the side of Linda’s ex-husband — told the court that Linda was unrealistic and was doing harm to her daughter in her attempts to get Sara the Free and Appropriate Public Education guaranteed by federal law.

The principal went so far as to assert, under oath, among other disturbing things, that Sara was “mentally retarded” and would most likely end up being a ward of the state. This was not only offensive but signaled CCSD’s indifference to federal law, which, under Rosa’s Law, rejects the pejorative language of “mental retardation” and requires the more precise, technical and objective language of intellectual disabilities.

Even Linda’s lawyer, experienced in this type of law, was astounded that this type of testimony was allowed. Fortunately, Linda had done her due diligence and brought informed expert witnesses to testify.

Linda by that time had already gotten Sara special-help programs recommended by the same doctor whose report CCSD had dismissed — paying for it out of her own pocket. And those programs had been enabling Sara to make important progress of the sort that CCSD insisted was impossible.

Having proved that her expectations were not unrealistic, Linda won the custody battle.

Today Sara attends a charter school managed by The State Charter Authority. She attends regularly scheduled online classes, in which she can participate in learning programs better suited to children with her particular issue.

Sara also receives evidence-based specific intervention for her disability by two educational therapists. She has jumped two grade levels in reading and more than a grade level in math.

In both of these critically important subject areas, CCSD staff had basically given up.

Spending the second half of fifth grade in her new learning environment, Sara has been progressing by leaps and bounds — progress that CCSD sought to systematically disallow her from making.

Linda knows a couple of things for certain from her experience with CCSD. The first is that the district isn’t providing the Free and Appropriate Public Education that special needs children are entitled to under federal law. The second is that the district is not adequately providing or executing Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) — even though this is a basic requirement for the millions of federal dollars CCSD receives.

CCSD over-generalizes in bad faith when categorizing students, says Linda, and, rather than actually individualizing children’s education programs, applies blanket solutions that don’t address children’s needs.

Both practices allow the district to minimize its outlay of the federal money it receives for special education and instead consign special-needs children to much less expensive one-size-fits-all blanket programs that do not work, not being individualized.

Parents like Linda, therefore, face a choice: take their children out of the district and pay themselves – if they can — for the intervention and education appropriate to their child’s needs, or — acquiesce to the lifelong damage to him or her that CCSD placement will mean.

Sara’s path to date is illustrative of that of many children.

When she entered the public schools, behavioral issues popped up that had never existed before. She was bullied. She was the bully. She called herself stupid. She hated school.

On more than one occasion, and out of compliance with laws regarding special-needs children, Sara was physically restrained or kicked out of school.

Linda knew Sara’s acting out was communicating that something was not right in school, as she did not display this behavior in any other setting.

Today, the situation is different. Sara is now doing addition, subtraction and fractions, and walking around a building learning area perimeter. She is testing out on a fourth-grade level for reading and participated in a fifth-grade curriculum, earning — with appropriate support via her new IEP — A’s and C’s. Now Sara is thankful for her new educational environment, explicitly thanking her mom for her new schooling. She writes notes to herself these days like, “Now I feel hope in me.”

That new hope, however, comes with a hefty financial burden. Linda has spent over $15,000 out of pocket by the time of this story to pay for services to Sara that federal law — as well as a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision — says the public education system should provide. Linda estimates she’ll end up paying roughly $24,000 to Sara’s educational providers in the coming year.

If a school district is unable to provide the help a student requires, the IDEA law requires it to either bring in someone who can, or to reimburse the parents for the cost they incur when doing it on their own. A simple technicality regarding the process by which Sara was unenrolled currently prevents Linda from getting that reimbursement.

Working with Sara, Linda spends roughly 20 hours a week of her own time. Through all the strife, she has remained hopeful for the future.

“We have left survival mode and moved into thrive mode!” she says.

This year, in her new environment, Sara will repeat the fifth grade. Half a school year there has already produced remarkable improvements in her performance, so hopes are high for what a full fifth-grade experience can bring her.

Nevada’s Education Savings Account program — if state legislators had funded it this spring — would have allowed Linda to get Sara the education she needs, without the extreme financial burden Linda currently carries, and that the U.S. Congress never intended her to bear.

Many parents we’ve spoken to in the course of this series have shared similar experiences of their children being mislabeled and subjected to blanket policies whose only real purpose, the parents suspect, is to force caring, concerned parents to remove their children from CCSD and allow the district to continue pocketing federal money under false pretenses.

The March 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Endrew F. case, they hope, will give special-needs children and their families a way to stop that travesty.