Monday, August 20, 2012

I Sued The Department of Education and Won

I can easily recall all of my short comings and failures. But when asked of my accomplishments, I need to think.  They do not come as easily.

The stuff that I do for The Boy. I don't chalk that up to much. I don't do anything special.  I just do what needs to be done.

Then the other day I read a post by The Empress (Good Day, Regular People).  She called it "Hero Stories." She talked about one of my favorite movies and then shared a forgotten story about her son.  A day when she was his hero. 
I hadn't thought about this day in years, and it made me think of how we --how all of us out here -- have had moments of cape-wearing epicness where we toss aside our risk of injury to save another. (The Empress)
Then she asked her readers to share a time when we were heroes. 

And it reminded me of the time when I had to file for an Impartial Hearing.

If you recall, The Boy didn't have the best start to Kindergarten.  It sucked, actually.  I can say that now that he's out of that school. And he basically failed.  

When The Boy started kindergarten, there was no Occupational Therapist (OT) at the school.  Even though, the school principal and vice principal assured me there would be one.  Even though the program stated that the OT was a critical member of the team.

The Boy is a highly sensory seeking kind of kid. I never would have placed him in a school without an OT.  

By the second week of school, I was at odds with the school. They didn't like me and I didn't like them.  I asked too many questions and I had been told several times that I should "relax."  That's easy to say when it's not when it's not your kid.

I was paying out of pocket for private OT services - $150 per 60 minute session. The Boy's IEP mandate required 90 minutes per week.  

By mid October, the school was still without an OT  and I was running out of money.  So I asked the assistant principal to provide an RSA letter so that I didn't have to continue paying for services.  The assistant principal's response? "I've done all that I can do.  Call 311."

Three weeks, one meeting (with 8 people), five emails, seven phone calls and over $1,000 (amount of money spent on OT services) later - we received an RSA letter.

Fast forward to February.  The Boy's school situation was getting worse and I knew he couldn't go back for a second year. I was touring schools and scheduled a free consultation with a special education attorney.  When I told the attorney about paying out of pocket for OT services, she stated I could sue for reimbursement.

In my mind it didn't make sense to pay attorney fees for such a small claim.  So I filed for impartial hearing on my own. I filled out the forms, stated the facts and gathered my evidence.  I even wrote my opening statement for the hearing.

And on the day of the hearing, the Dept of Ed rep didn't even contest the claim. He knew the school was failing The Boy. 

And I won.  All my own* without any legal representation. (Remember, I am just a mom, I am not a: lawyer, professional advocate, special education teacher, psychologist, therapist (of any kind) or social worker.)

There is a lot of talk about special needs kids being bullied in school.  But parents have to deal with bullies too.  Department of Education bullies.  I believe The Boy's school tried to bully me.  They tried to bully me thinking I'd back down and pull him out.  The bullied me by saying I was the problem. They bullied me thinking I'd go away.  

I didn't. I fought back. I never gave up. I stood up for The Boy.  

The Boy's school failed to provide him with a Free Appropriate Public Education. I could have let it go.  I could have been happy with securing the RSA. But I couldn't. In the end, it wasn't so much about the money. It was the sheer principle.

And winning that case gave me the courage and confidence to keep fighting.  And by the end of the school year, I had no choice but to file for impartial hearing again so that I could get him out of the school.

And you know what?  I won that case too.  But that's a post for another day.

The Boy doesn't need to think I'm his hero.  He just needs to know that I believe in him enough to keep fighting like one.

*DISCLAIMER: I did consult with an attorney and Advocates for Children regarding the process. Do not take this post as legal advice. If you have an issue with your school and/or services, consult with an attorney or special education advocate immediately.

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AutismWonderland - written by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez - is a personal blog chronicling a NYC family's journey with autism, while also sharing local resources for children/families with special needs.