Stories and Grievances: Special Education
Westport Connecticut Parents Cannot Get Services For Their Children With Special Needs
The focus of the administration has changed from 'What's best for the child?' to asking, 'What is our minimal requirement under the law?' " says Richard C. Elliott, a former adjunct professor in the Westpost system. Parents are distressed that money is spent by the district on lawyers to fight against giving services.
April 24, 2005
Amid Affluence, a Struggle Over Special Education
By ALISON LEIGH COWAN, NY TIMES
WESTPORT, Conn., April 20 - "Legal Issues in School Health Services," all 662 pages of it, is a popular read among school administrators in this wealthy town on the Long Island Sound. Parents, however, are more likely to be poring over Gary Mayerson's "How to Compromise With Your School District Without Compromising Your Child," or "Wrightslaw: Special Education Law," by Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Darr Wright.
Special education is a hot topic here, with school board meetings exploding into shouting matches over what services children are entitled to under federal law and parents spending thousands of dollars on appeals to force the school district to provide those services for their children.
The parents say they have no choice: the district, one of the state's most affluent, is fighting just as hard to hold the line on skyrocketing special education costs.
"The sign outside Westport should say: 'Don't Move Here. We Don't Take Care of Special Ed,' " said Stanley Alintoff, a parent who said he has spent more than $100,000 challenging Westport's decision to revoke special accommodations his daughter was receiving because of a digestive disorder.
With an estimated 5.7 million children in the United States qualifying for special education, similar struggles are playing out around the country. Federal laws aimed at protecting the disabled entitle those who qualify to a free and "appropriate" education tailored to their needs. But the definition of "appropriate" differs from town to town, leaving much to quarrel about.
The battle is particularly intense in the suburbs, where wealthy, educated parents no longer see special education as a stigma or trap. They are pressing hard for services and accommodations to address their children's learning needs, from extra time on tests to tuition for private schools. But many suburban school districts are aggressively challenging some of the requests as indulgent interpretations of the law.
In Hamilton County, Tenn., for instance, school officials spent $2.2 million on lawyers and expert witnesses to avoid having to reimburse Maureen and Philip Deal the $60,000 annual cost of providing their autistic son, Zachary, with one-on-one behavioral training. Administrators warned that giving in could have made the district responsible for $10 million a year in services for other children. In December, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit sided largely with the parents. The district is reviewing its options.
In Calaveras County, Calif., the Bret Harte Union High School District fought so hard to block the claims of a student that Judge Oliver W. Wanger of United States District Court took 83 pages to berate the district's "hard-line position" and its law firm for "willfully and vexatiously" dragging out the case so long that the former student is now 24.
Similar battles are under way in Westport, a town of gracious homes and six- and seven-figure incomes, where both Mandarin Chinese and Latin will be taught next fall at the high school, remodeled recently at a cost of $76 million. Westport's school district has spent more than $2 million on legal fees and settlement costs in the last six years to fight parents' complaints that special education students get short shrift.
As of last week, the district reported, 564 children, or 11 percent of Westport's student body, qualified for special education. Some are getting as little as a few hours of weekly speech therapy. Others get tuition for private school or home tutoring.
Dr. Elliott Landon, the superintendent of Westport's schools, and Cynthia Gilchrest, the director of pupil services, acknowledged that tensions were high. But they insisted that their decisions were not based on cost. "In the years I've been here in special ed, it's what is best for kids," said Dr. Landon, who ran three other school districts before taking the Westport job six years ago.
His administration has denied many special education requests - horseback riding and personal trainers, for instance - that it deemed extravagant. "This is a tough community, where everyone has to be perfect, and when you don't fit that world, some people react differently than others," Dr. Landon said. "They want what they want, which oftentimes is not appropriate."
But Ron Blittstein, a father who is fighting to get his 11th grader extra time to complete tests, disputed the notion that parents like him were seeking an unfair edge. "No one wants to be in the club," he said.
Coming from Warren, N.J., where, he said, accommodations were granted without fuss, Mr. Blittstein said that Westport's harder line could cost children their shot at an education. "They have seemingly endless resources to just wear you down, and my kid will be out of the school system in a year," he said.
While the federal government created the special education entitlement, and some states outside New York, New Jersey and Connecticut enacted stricter laws of their own, Congress and state legislatures have failed to provide all the funding.
According to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, local districts shouldered 61.5 percent of the burden for special education in the 2003-4 school year. Shortfalls in state and federal funding also meant special education consumed 8 percent of local government outlays in Connecticut, up from 6.6 percent in the late 1990s, according to the conference.
The strain on the bottom line can be intense, even in Westport, where in the 2002-3 school year the $10.9 million spent on special education consumed 15.9 percent of the district's education spending. Still, that was below the 19.7 percent state average and the 17.5 percent average for comparable towns, according to the State Department of Education.
Dr. Landon and Nancy Harris, the business manager for Westport's school system, said they have kept special education expenses in line through cost control, not by narrowing eligibility or skimping on services. One example they cited was the hiring of in-house occupational and physical therapists, saving the district $400,000 a year by reducing fees to outsiders. Dr. Landon said expanded "academic support" in lower grades has reduced the number of children who need special education referrals later.
But some longtime residents of Westport said that the town's attitude toward children with special needs has shifted from the days when it opened Stepping Stones, a preschool program conceived with the disabled in mind.
"The focus of the administration changed," said Richard C. Elliott, an adjunct professor of education at Argosy University in Sarasota, Fla., who spent 30 years as a teacher and administrator in the Westport system. "It changed from asking the question, 'What's best for the child?' to asking, 'What is our minimal requirement under the law?' "
Last year, 23 requests, most of them from parents, were filed with the state from Westport for "due process" - an administrative procedure that generally precedes a lawsuit. That was the highest number in Connecticut, according to the state. Next highest were West Hartford, with 16 requests, and Greenwich, with 15, both with larger districts than Westport.
Parents have also gone to court, and some have left the public schools or moved a few miles out of town to another district.
At school board meetings and in interviews, many parents faulted Dr. Landon, and the town's competitive culture. "Elliott Landon does not get kudos for how many special ed kids he teaches multiplication tables to," said Valerie Spellman, the mother of two autistic children, who moved her family out of the district last year. "He gets kudos for how many kids he gets into Ivy League schools."
Marsha Moses, a lawyer who advises the district, said parents were always free to supplement what taxpayers provide. "The question really comes," Ms. Moses said, "if there are public dollars being asked to fund things that may be not necessary to provide a free and appropriate education."
Well-to-do families, however, have shown a willingness to push back. Richard Ellenbogen and Dr. Debra Weissman paid $50,000 in legal fees for more than 11 days of due process hearings last year to force Westport to pay for private school for their teenage son, who has a bipolar disorder and other problems that interfere with his ability to learn.
Westport's solution was to recommend placing him in a public school in Trumbull, which teaches special education children from the region for a fee. The hearing officer sided with the district. But the couple said that they believed the curriculum was not sufficiently challenging and that they might appeal, or move.
"The process does take over your life," said Dr. Weissman, a dermatologist, sipping tea in her kitchen. Poring over the bills, her husband, a legal consultant, said he can only wonder how different things might be if the district "spent the money on education instead of litigation."
Declining to address specific cases, Ms. Gilchrest, Westport's director of pupil services, said that during the 2003-4 school year, "if we had said yes to every request that went to due process, it would have cost an additional $1 million." Settling those cases cost the district $309,000, she said. Thus, even with $153,000 in legal fees, she said, taxpayers saved more than $500,000.
Parents and some members of Westport's Board of Finance point out that Ms. Gilchrest's analysis places no value on lost staff time or on the cost to society of failing those children. Critics also have trouble grasping why the district fights tooth and nail in situations where giving in would cost little. Some of the fiercest fights, they said, involve requests for extra time on tests or early dismissal so children can attend enrichment programs at parents' expense.
Ms. Gilchrest said: "We want to make sure we don't put a label of handicapped on a child that's not handicapped. That's a serious label."
Some of the parents, however, wonder whether the hard stance is also meant to warn them that life might be easier elsewhere.
For his part, Mr. Alintoff, whose case is now in court, insists he will stand his ground. "I didn't move to Westport to send my kid to private school," he said.
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