A parent of an autistic student at Carlin Springs Elementary worries that school officials are pushing her son into general education classes too quickly, and she’s taking the school system to court in response.
Jemie Sanchez says that school officials assured her last year that her son, Christopher, would continue to primarily learn in small classes when he moved up to kindergarten this fall, with attention from a special education teacher. But she says she subsequently discovered her son has been spending his time in larger, general education classrooms instead, and can’t understand why educators would make such a change.
Sanchez is pursuing legal action against Arlington Public Schools to try and force Carlin Springs leaders to adhere to what she felt they’d originally promised for her son, particularly because she’s concerned that the school has repeated this pattern with other students in special education classes.
“When I used to send him to pre-school, I felt comfortable, and now I don’t,” Sanchez told ARLnow. “The worst part is he cant tell me either, because he’s largely nonverbal. He used to be happy to go to school. He’d wake up early on weekends and say he wants to go to school, and he’s not doing that anymore.”
APS spokesman Frank Bellavia says the school system can’t comment “on an individual student’s record,” so it’s impossible for the school system to respond directly to Sanchez’s claims. But he did seek to stress that APS staffers work diligently to develop Individualized Education Programs (commonly known as IEPs) for special needs students in conjunction with parents, in order to allay any potential concerns.
“In general, school staff and families are able to have informal discussions and/or formal IEP meetings to consider a child’s strengths and weaknesses, services, accommodations and placement,” Bellavia said. “Additional specialists from the Central Office are available for consultation and participation. Families and school staff may also access support from our Parent Resource Center.”
Sanchez felt she had worked out an acceptable IEP with the Carlin Springs administration and special education teachers back in March.
She stressed to educators that she felt her son would be best suited for a small classroom with only seven to eight students in total, and two teachers working with them. And she says Carlin Springs staff agreed with her on that point.
Yet when Sanchez arrived for a back-to-school event earlier this fall, she learned that Christopher was spending time in a larger, general education class, working with a special education assistant at the time.
“He has troubles with transitions already, so I just couldn’t imagine him being in a bigger classroom with different teachers,” Sanchez said.
She quickly raised the issue with educators, who then offered to arrange another meeting with her to revise Christopher’s IEP. But she can’t understand why they changed the arrangement they struck back in March without consulting her first.
“They’re not implementing the first one, so how can we decide on something else after such a short period of time?” Sanchez said.
Sanchez decided to hire a lawyer instead, and challenge the school’s actions in court. Nicholas Ostrem signed on as her attorney, and he says he helped her file an administrative complaint, in order to force the school to comply with the original IEP educators sketched out for Christopher.
He says the school system has so far insisted that it is indeed complying with that document, but he worries that Sanchez’s son shouldn’t be working solely with an assistant teacher when he’s in the larger group setting.
“Many [assistants] don’t have specific special education training, and we don’t think that complies with the IEP,” said Ostrem, whose firm focuses on special education cases. “Even giving them the benefit of the doubt, we don’t think they’re doing this in good faith. It can’t just be a warm body, you have to try to educate these kids.”
Ostrem said the case was set to go before a hearing officer today (Thursday), though it could take a while yet before everything the courts can sort all this out. He even wonders why APS has fought back on this in the first place, arguing that it will “cost taxpayers a ton of money” to litigate the case.
For her part, Sanchez says the whole ordeal has been “very emotional,” particularly after she just had another child a few weeks ago. Now, she wonders what the future might hold for her family.
“I’ve lived in Arlington my whole life, I grew up going to APS,” Sanchez said. “I wanted that for him too, but then it’s coming to this. It’s made me think maybe I made a mistake in wanting to keep him in Arlington.”
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