For Military Children in Special Education, Schools Often Struggle to Meet Their Needs
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For Military Children in Special Education, Schools Often Struggle to Meet Their Needs

– Navigating a school
system can be challenging for any parent with a child
who has special needs. But for military families,
that stress is compounded by their lifestyle of repeated moves and attending different schools that offer varying levels of services. In her second report
focusing on military kids, special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza with our partner, Education Week, reports from Virginia Beach, Virginia, where a third of children in need of special education services can fall through the cracks. It’s part of our education series, Making the Grade. – Okay, see you, Sing. – See you. – All right, have a good day. – [Kavitha] After years of military moves, Navy Captain Cassidy Norman was posted to Virginia Beach. – Bye.
– Bye, bye. – [Kavitha] The Normans
had lived here before and their daughter
loved her former school. 14-year-old Marissa has
several disabilities, including cerebral palsy, severe anxiety, poor eyesight and hearing. – Her disabilities are all
compounded in the classroom. It’s difficult for her
to listen, and learn, and write all at the same time. – [Kavitha] Marissa needs one-on-one help and therapies but she
has normal intelligence, which means with patience and
educational accommodations, she can learn just like
any of her classmates. (airplane thundering) Virginia Beach is surrounded by bases and the economy is closely
tied to the military. It’s schools have several programs to support military kids
but several service members say the district is not meeting the needs of their children with disabilities. Eileen Huck with the National
Military Family Association says obtaining special education services is a significant challenge for
service members nationwide. – So often I hear from
families who have things set at their previous location
and then they had to move and then they feel as though
they’re starting from scratch. – [Kavitha] The military does consider a child’s medical and education
needs during assignments. – But there is less attention paid to the special education services because federal law says that all school districts are required to provide
a free and appropriate public education. – [Kavitha] All children
with special needs in every public school
district are entitled to an evaluation and individualized plan detailing the supports they’ll receive. But when Marissa returned
to Virginia Beach District her parents noticed right
away something was wrong. – We weren’t getting progress reports. They kept taking away
services and goals from her and from her education plan. – It was very frustrating. – And at the same time they would give her honor roll and student of the
month every once in awhile but all this time she was stagnating and in some areas regressing. – [Kavitha] Cassidy had
to leave for training and was then deployed to the Middle East. Still he would call into
meetings about Marissa, which he said school
officials often postponed or canceled. More than a year passed and
nothing significant changed. The Normans moved Marissa
to a private school. They also hired a lawyer. – I was so depressed, I wasn’t myself. And I was crying all the time. I had to go see a therapist. And Cass was so worried about me he had to send a base chaplain to come come speak to me. – During this case I was responsible for the health and welfare of 3000 sailors plus 2000 additional
deployers on our ship. And even though that was stressful, it was more stressful for me
to think about my daughter who was not being taken care
of by the public school here. – [Kavitha] Aaron Spence
is Superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools. – Well, I want to be clear. We actually do a great job with our special education program
in Virginia Beach. On rare occasion we
have some disagreements and differences with our families. Fortunately we have a great
system for working through that. – [Kavitha] Some military
families here disagree. Bryn Bennett, Adriana
Rodriguez, and Sydney Jillson all have children with special needs. – A few weeks after my
husband left for deployment my son was having some sort
of breakdown in the classroom. They couldn’t get him to calm down and I got there and they
had chairs kind of lined up. It was almost like he was a caged animal. – To watch the people that I know are supposed to be on his side, the ones that are
supposed to be helping him and to see them pushing his buttons and upsetting him to such
lengths was upsetting. – They didn’t listen to
a word we had to say. They didn’t listen to a
word his doctors had to say. They didn’t offer any supports. – [Kavitha] The district would not comment on any of the cases saying it would be inappropriate because
we remain in litigation and due process with
many of these families. But in a written statement, a spokesperson said the school district is committed to providing
the best learning environment possible for all children. We have nationally-recognized partnerships with our local installations
and are acknowledged as a premiere provider of services in the military community. But in one complaint which
included military families, investigators found that
Virginia Beach schools were offering only the
bare minimum in services, which translated into a deficit education. Advocate Eileen Huck says
there are school districts that just wait it out. – It’s unfortunate but I
think it’s sometimes true that school districts will
be hesitant to provide a new service or a new
resource to a family that they know is going to
be moving out of the district in a year or two. – We are not activities. We are not looking for a fight. We’re looking for a good community. – [Kavitha] It’s rare for a family to file a formal complaint
and even more rare for them to win. But a Virginia Department
of Education investigation found the school district had not provided the minimum education
required by law for Marissa. – [Coach] Hop it, hop it! – [Kavitha] The school district appealed. The Normans won again in federal court and Virginia Beach was ordered to pay for her private school. – Ah, Marissa. Oh, good job. – [Kavitha] Marissa had to repeat a grade in her new school but
now she’s doing well. – She plays on the volleyball team. – She’s making friends. She’s learning. – [Kavitha] Providing
special education services can be expensive for school districts. But as the Normans say, it’s federal law. They say Virginia Beach schools have already spent more
than $300 thousand dollars just on their case. The Normans say they hear from many other military families. – And very few, if any, are
able to afford a lawyer. It’s been depressing
to see all the families that can not fight the
fight that we are fighting and all of the families that have given up or are afraid of retribution
and will not speak out. – Virginia Beach School
District recently stopped paying for Marissa’s private school and is appealing the verdict, which means another long court case that Michelle will have to deal with on her own because Cassidy Norman has just received transfer orders for a
15-month posting on a ship based in Italy. For the PBS News Hour and Education Week, I’m Kavitha Cardoza in
Virginia Beach, Virginia. (bright piano music)

About James Carlton

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1 thought on “For Military Children in Special Education, Schools Often Struggle to Meet Their Needs

  1. Abolish special education out of every public school in America the government should help disabled children with welfare and homeschool them instead

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