MCPS special education cases: Ultimately, it's the child who suffers
Washington Post columnist Jay Matthews dedicated his Sunday column to Seth, a 9-year-old boy in Montgomery County Public Schools. Seth is a special education student, and as is the case with too many families this office has helped over the years, Seth’s parents have been in a knock-down, drag-out fight with the school system over how best to address Seth’s numerous and varied needs.
The case Matthews writes about has been ongoing for more than a year and Matthews believes it is unlikely that the two sides will find comity. Though Matthews does delve into all of the details of this particular battle between Seth’s parents and MCPS, it appears the matter has already gone through a due process appeal and been heard by an administrative law judge of the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings. It also seems quite likely that Seth’s parents, who took Seth out of school when they grew concerned that school personnel were unable or unwilling to account for Seth’s medical needs, have been hit with truancy charges by the school system.
And the fight goes on.
To a special education attorney, Matthews account of the parents’ choices does raise an eyebrow or two. In particular, their decision to not allow Seth to return to his present placement without obtaining sufficient medical documentation of his then-existing condition is troublesome. At the same time, when a family has been fighting for so long, and when their child has an illness that could be life-threatening, it is easier to understand why they might decide to take this route.
It is not so easy, however, to understand why MCPS continues to cling to policies that turn parents and school system into adversaries. As Matthews writes, both sides want Seth to get a good education. That is common ground that would form a solid foundation for alternative problem-solving processes if MCPS would reconsider its outdated and, frankly, harmful position towards handling special education matters that are in dispute.
Seth is not truly alone. Families with disabled children in the Montgomery County Public Schools system routinely find themselves forced into a tooth-and-nail battle for their children’s rights. Earlier this year, MCPS released a detailed listing of the private attorneys it has hired to represent the school system in these battles and how much each attorney has been paid.
MCPS paid out $322,207 to a single law firm during the 2011-2012 school year for special education legal expenses alone.
That money paid out by MCPS is taxpayer dollars, money that MCPS diverts from educating the very children whose rights the school system has so aggressively, and so harmfully, fought to deny.
Resolving disputes through mediation, arbitration and collaborative processes is a national trend. This is happening in the courts, labor unions, management, modern industry and entire swaths of federal, state and local government. This is the trend because these methods of alternative dispute resolution have been shown to be cheaper and less time-consuming than the traditional adversarial model. They also tend to produce results that are just as good, if not better, than litigation.
MCPS has gone against the tide. It continues to double down on the lose/lose policy of forcing special education cases through a lengthy process of appeals that almost invariably wind up before the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings or the courts. In order to fight back, the parents have to hire lawyers and medical/psychiatric specialists of all stripes. The net result is that the child suffers.