WASHINGTON - Raising a child who has a disability or learning disorder is difficult enough, but some parents say they are having to go to battle with their school district to get special education services.
Even more troubling, research shows there is an unequal playing field for parents who don’t have an attorney.
Tracy Sherman is one woman who took on the system and won. She says third grade was a struggle for her daughter, Jaelynn, who attends Rosa Parks Middle School in Prince George’s County.
“She would come home very frustrated,” Sherman said. “She would say, ‘I’m dumb, I’m stupid.’ She tried to hurt herself because there was so much frustration.”
She says what really wasn’t adding up was her daughter’s stellar report cards.
“She would bring home D’s and Es on tests and her report cards were all A's and B’s,” said Sherman, who showed FOX 5 the report cards and honor roll certificates.
Sherman knew her daughter needed an individualized education plan or IEP. She says she was surprised when the school system was reluctant to test Jaelynn.
“We were denied several times until we obtained a lawyer,” she said.
When the test finally happened, Sherman realized Jaelynn wasn’t tested appropriately. Sherman appealed to the Maryland State Department of Education and won. According to the state investigation, a violation occurred.
“MSDE finds that the (Prince George’s County) IEP team did not assess the student in all areas of need,” reads the report. It goes on to say that “the IEP team’s decision that the student did not have a disability in May 2017 was inconsistent with the data.”
Now in fourth grade, Jaelyn finally has the right services.
“But it took all the money, all the lawyers, all the eyes on them to get them to do anything,” said Sherman.
Anne Arundel County mother Sarah Davis can relate to expensive legal battles. She also hired an attorney because she believes her daughter, Lilli, needs additional help at school due to her dyslexia.
As a military family, Davis says Lilli received a lot more support at her prior school in Texas.
“The interventions that she was receiving included reading and writing tutoring as well as speech therapy, occupational therapy and some other types of interventions,” Davis said. “When we got here, they retested her and they removed most of those supports from her IEP.”
The school’s test didn’t show Lilli needed that extra help, so Davis requested Anne Arundel County Public Schools do an outside evaluation.
“They paid over $30,000 to take Lilli to court and deny that evaluation,” Davis said.
An open records act request shows Anne Arundel County Public Schools paid more than $30,000 in legal fees just on Lilli’s case. In turn, the Davis family have also racked up their own legal bills.
“It’s very costly, but the alternative is that our daughter doesn't get the interventions that she needs,” Davis said.
Federal law requires public schools to provide a free and appropriate education to eligible students with disabilities. Plus, schools must find and evaluate students at no cost to parents.
Sherman and Davis both wonder if it's been this hard for them, what about the parents who don't know their rights and can't afford a lawyer?
University of Maryland professor Margaret McLaughlin specializes in special education and says that issue is a major problem.
“Research is really very clear that parents who have a lawyer, who go file a complaint and go further and have a lawyer are twice or more likely to get whatever it is they are asking for as parents who go through the same process without a lawyer,” McLaughlin said.
She says there shouldn't be these inequities where poorer or less knowledgeable families are at a disadvantage. McLaughlin says there are some new strategies in education to help parents through the process without paying expensive legal fees.
There are education advocates who help parents avoid attorneys fees. Below are some resources for Maryland parents:
Both Prince George’s and Anne Arundel County Public Schools say they can’t comment on individual student cases.
Prince George's County Public Schools provided this statement saying:
"Prince George’s County Public Schools (PGCPS) will move forward with additional training, guidance and monitoring to ensure that any child in need of special education services receives the appropriate supports. There will be systemic training in June and August to reinforce the identification process for special education services. The Department of Special Education will also monitor schools monthly for the timely identification, evaluation and placement process for students with disabilities. It is important to note that our population of students served in special education is in line with national averages. We are committed to providing every child with the tools they need for success."
Anne Arundel County Public Schools said in a statement:
"Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA), either the parent/guardian or the local education agency may request mediation and/or a due process hearing to resolve a formal dispute. In some cases, a school system may be required by state and federal law to request a due process hearing in response to a parent request. A decision to proceed to a due process hearing is not commonplace and is not taken lightly. Such decisions are very fact specific and dependent on both the request and the best interests of the student."