Children with disabilities ‘always lose’ appeals from Virginia schools, lawsuit says

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Northern Virginia school systems grant less than 1% of requests from parents of children with disabilities seeking to enroll in schools that better meet their needs, according to data submitted as part of a lawsuit in civil rights.

The plaintiffs allege the state Department of Education has “retained” officials who almost always decide cases in its favor, according to the class action lawsuit filed in federal court last month by the parents of an autistic student. The state has prevented children with disabilities from getting the educational support they need, parents say, disadvantaging a generation of people with special needs.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, told the story of a college student known only as “DC,” a 19-year-old who suffers from autism, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and Tourette’s syndrome. , among other troubles. Lawyers in the case shared the data with The Washington Post.

In 2008, according to the lawsuit, Fairfax County Public Schools found DC eligible for special education services and placed him in a public school. There, according to the lawsuit, DC struggled academically and behaviorally, exhibiting “severe aggressive and violent behavior” — sometimes including self-harm and ending in hospitalization.

When his parents, Trevor and Vivian Chaplick, requested that he be placed in a private residential program, their request was denied. Although a social worker warned the Chaplicks they would lose, according to the lawsuit, they still appealed – and lost in 2015.

In a second appeal in 2021, they filed Freedom of Information Act requests to determine how often parents like them have won when they challenge decisions about the care of their children. disabled children. What the Chaplicks found troubled them.

“Parents and students with disabilities in Virginia almost always lose, especially in Northern Virginia,” the lawsuit says.

Virginia still fails people with disabilities, say families who beg lawmakers to ‘see’ them

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which protects students with disabilities, allows parents to appeal school placements. But between 2010 and July 2021, only three out of 395 petitions in Northern Virginia have prevailed.

Across Virginia, the results weren’t much better, according to the data. Only 13 parents in 847 cases, or about 1.5 percent, successfully challenged school district decisions about their children’s placements. By comparison, the lawsuit said nearly 35% of parents in California — the state with the most students with special needs in the nation — have won such cases, as have about 15 percent of Maryland parents. Virginia served more than 169,000 students with disabilities from 2021 to 2022, officials said.

In an email, Virginia Department of Education spokesman Charles B. Pyle said the agency does not comment on ongoing litigation.

“The department is committed to ensuring that students with disabilities receive all services and supports to which they are entitled under federal and state law,” he said.

In a statement, Fairfax County Public Schools said it could not comment on ongoing litigation. “We are ready to work with anyone to improve services and opportunities for our students,” the statement said.

An autistic teenager needed mental health help. He spent weeks in the emergency room instead.

But the Chaplicks say in their lawsuit that Fairfax and the state failed to provide appropriate educational resources despite their child’s desperate need.

“Most of the time we had to deal with his self-harming behaviors,” recalls Vivian Chaplick. “He was self-harming. He would try to hurt others. It was a battle trying to keep him safe.

The lawsuit alleges that the Virginia Department of Education “carefully curated” a list of hearing officers who almost always find for the state.

These officers, who are state-certified attorneys, can earn more than $40,000 on a case, according to the lawsuit. Because they have a financial interest by keeping the state happy — by getting referrals in exchange for denials — they are biased, the lawsuit says: Two-thirds of the 22 state officers examined in the lawsuit have never ruled for parents in the entire state. state, nor 83% in Northern Virginia.

He added that state officials “train [officers], pay ’em, name ’em…all with the promise of a stable, long-term revenue stream that requires no marketing spend for auditioning agents who simply refrain from biting the hand that feeds itself. This creates a group of “conniving hearing officers” who, if they do not support the state, may not receive cases in the future.

“The result was an entire generation of disabled children and their parents faced with an almost insurmountable obstacle,” the lawsuit said.

Trevor Chaplick, a corporate lawyer, said raising a child with a disability can be “one of the toughest parenting situations you can imagine”. Chaplick said he was grateful his family had resources to help his child, who now lives at his school. But the state is not doing enough to help those with limited means, according to Chaplick.

He recalls attending a self-defense class for parents of autistic children, learning techniques to keep themselves and their children safe during emotional outbursts.

“I will never forget sitting in this room seeing a cross section of society… the poor, the middle class,” he said. “They were people on edge financially and emotionally.”

Lawsuit comes after US Department of Education slams Virginia for failing to provide sufficient services for students with disabilities in 2020. A report by the nonprofit group American Institutes for Research commissioned by the Fairfax School Board released earlier this month also found that students with disabilities across the state are more likely than their peers to be suspended and fail state tests.

Callie Oettinger, an advocate for improving Virginia’s treatment of students with special needs, said in an interview that she struggled with Fairfax Public Schools for years after the system failed to provide services. that she deemed necessary for her son, who is dyslexic.

Although Oettinger suspected her son had dyslexia in grade one, the school system refused to assess him until grade six, telling him that “boys are slower to read,” he said. she stated. (Fairfax County declined to discuss the case, citing confidentiality concerns.)

Once her son was diagnosed, the school system refused to provide a curriculum that Oettinger deemed appropriate. A hearing officer agreed a program was needed, she said, but found the school provided free and appropriate education, as required by law.

The result was inevitable: “We worked with him ourselves,” Oettinger said.

“That’s what parents do,” she says. “It tears families apart. It stresses marriages. This puts stress on children and siblings, and Fairfax County knows this is happening. And you see it happen again and again.

Bill Hogan, an investigative reporter formerly with the Center for Public Integrity and other news outlets, said he adopted his 3-year-old daughter from Russia in 1993. She suffered from multiple mental health issues. learning, including dyslexia, he said, possibly due to fetal alcohol effects. syndrome.

When she was a student at Fairfax County Schools in the mid-1990s, he fought for years with the district, culminating in litigation. At one point, school experts said Hogan’s daughter would never learn to read – but they would not pay for a private school placement which Hogan said could help.

Hogan ended up paying out of pocket and then settled with the school system around the time his daughter turned 18. Her daughter, now 33, is literate with a high school diploma.

“The system didn’t help her,” he says. “I feel like I helped her.”

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