Couple Alleges San Diego Unified Wrongly Denied Special Ed Services To Their Son
Speaker 1: 00:00 As special education costs continue to spiral battles between parents and school districts over what services students need have intensified KPBS education reporter. Joe Hong has the story of one family who took their fight to court. Speaker 2: 00:16 Can you tell him your name? Speaker 3: 00:18 Eli's parents say they knew right away that their child would have hearing problems. His dad, John Davenport recalls how, as a toddler, Eli held his plastic toy guitar right up to his ear to hear the noises, Speaker 2: 00:28 He would sit when he was one-year-old he would sit and he would lay his ear, flush against it. What was blasting music. And he would just lay with his ear like that, you know, and I tested it, I took it and I held it close to my ear and it hurts. You know, that was, it was obvious at that point that he had a problem for me Speaker 3: 00:43 Originally Davenport and his wife, Ferris Sheree were able to put Eli in the deaf and hard of hearing program for toddlers at San Diego unified Lafayette elementary school and the Clairemont Mesa neighborhood. But when Eli turned three, he aged out of the program and the district has denied him entrance into the full day program. Ever since for the past two years, Eli's parents who are both physicians have spent upwards of $30,000 to provide Eli with the patchwork of private services. But despite the advantage of being health experts with financial resources, they see Eli still significantly behind where he should be. The pandemic has only made me Speaker 2: 01:16 Was worse than after that, that he didn't meet there. You know what the district called their criteria for hearing impairment. And so they kicked him out when he was three. Um, but he should have remained in that school. If he had remained in that school, I think his speech would be far improved and where he is now. There's no question. It would be Speaker 3: 01:33 Parents say they have no clue why the district did not provide the services. In the past two and a half years, several independent experts examined Eli and found he easily qualifies as hearing impaired hearing specialists. Gwen, Susan is one of those experts. Speaker 1: 01:46 I have three audio grams that clearly show he has a hearing loss in both ears. So if I look at his audio gram, he has a moderate rising to mild sloping down to a moderate loss in both ears. Speaker 3: 02:04 A couple sued the district in November, 2019. And again, in October, 2020 for denying Eli services and for reimbursement for the private instructors and therapists so far, they say they've spent more than $20,000 on attorney's fees. Some are stuck as a special education attorney and a former teacher. She says this agreements like this occur only in a small percentage of cases, but when they do happen, they can be costly for both families and school districts. Speaker 1: 02:28 Sometimes, you know, you do wonder how you end up paying all the attorney's fees and all of the other costs, and sometimes reimbursement to families that have paid for the services themselves. And when you look at what it would have cost to just do it in the first place and see if it is in fact what the student needs to receive a FAPE. Um, it probably would have saved a lot of money. Speaker 3: 02:55 San Diego unified school district, spokeswoman Marine McGee, not comment on Eli's case citing the pending litigation. She also did not respond to questions about the district special education policies. Sheree says the final straw came last October after they made one last failed attempt to get services for Eli through San Diego unified at Lafayette elementary, the parents said they couldn't wait any longer. Speaker 2: 03:17 His progression, I guess his progress has been very, very slow and he is nowhere near, um, age level. He has, he does not have age level language. Um, and, um, I would say he's maybe at about the two, two year old two year old speech. Yeah. And he's five Speaker 3: 03:37 In November. They enrolled Eli at the John Tracy center in Los Angeles, which offers full-time in-person instruction for deaf and hard of hearing students. The parents rented an apartment in Los Angeles and took turns living with Eli for a week. At a time. The couple says they're fortunate to be able to pay for their son's special education, but they can't get back what they lost. Speaker 2: 03:56 There's no amount of money in the world. I think that someone could have and still give everything to their child. You know, we have resources, but it wasn't enough. Speaker 1: 04:09 Johnny May is KPBS education reporter Joe Hong and Joe. Welcome. Thanks for having me. These parents have been through quite a lot, trying to get help for their child, San Diego unified wouldn't comment on this case, but do they have a special ed criteria publicly available? So parents can figure it out. Speaker 3: 04:28 So, uh, there there's actually a federal law for that. It's called the individuals with disabilities education act that is, you know, publicly available for folks to read. But the problem in this case was that the federal law it's, it's pretty vague. Um, it basically just says if a student's, uh, disability impairs their ability to learn, you know, then they're entitled to services. And what we found in this case was that the districts, uh, we, we actually acquired internal emails at the district that shows that they actually have their own sort of internal criteria for hearing loss that the parents had no idea about. So that's one of the questions I had for the district is, you know, what's sort of the legality of having these metrics when there's a federal law in place. Speaker 1: 05:18 What did you learn from those emails? How San Diego unified policy is different from federal policy Speaker 3: 05:25 In federal law. It just says, you know, if a student's hearing is bad enough that it affects their learning, um, then he or she qualifies, but, uh, the district has on top of that created, um, its own metrics, meaning like at what decibels and what hurts are students able to, um, process sounds, you know, I really kind of saw this behind the scenes exchange that, you know, the parents say that they should have been a part of that conversation Speaker 1: 05:56 On a larger scale. We've heard that special ed students have been hit especially hard by school closures because of the pandemic. Can you give us an update on that situation? Speaker 3: 06:06 Most districts in the County right now are offering some form of in-person, uh, instruction for students with disabilities and in small groups. But before that really, uh, started happening, um, late last year, these students were really struggling, you know, special education, uh, more so than general education is inherently sort of a physical sort of in-person, uh, process and instructors really need to be physically with these students. And without that students have really regressed in a lot of cases. Uh, students have fallen behind in speech acquisition in, uh, developing sort of positive behaviors. And of course, academically as well, Speaker 1: 06:53 And San Diego unified is offering, I think some in-person instruction to kids struggling with remote learning. Is that aimed at special ed students. Speaker 3: 07:04 Yeah. So, uh, it's what they're calling their sort of first phase of reopening they're prioritizing high needs students for appointment-based, uh, in-person learning and yeah, definitely one of their top priorities is students with disabilities and sort of getting them back on track. Speaker 1: 07:21 I want to ask you about this new push to get California schools reopened. Governor Newsome just said that schools should be able to reopen safely, even if all teachers have not yet been vaccinated. How did teacher's unions feel about that? Speaker 3: 07:36 Uh, they are they're, they're not happy about that. So yeah, governor Newsome, uh, sort of fell in line with the Biden administration, uh, this week just saying that, uh, teacher vaccinating teachers is not a prerequisite for reopening schools and, you know, unions sort of swiftly responded and said that they have serious concerns about sending teachers back to campuses, uh, without the vaccine. And, you know, while the studies show that younger children might be less susceptible to, um, getting the virus and spreading the virus, these teachers are still at risk. Speaker 1: 08:13 What is San Diego unified position on the issue of reopening for in-person learning? Speaker 3: 08:19 The district has really set up three criteria for reopening. Um, one of them is teacher vaccinations. Uh, the second is getting the County back down to the red tier. So just lowering the spread of the virus overall in the community. And then the third is a robust testing program, which the district has in place where everyone who's on campus regularly needs to be tested every two weeks. Speaker 1: 08:45 So that sounds like it's going to take a while. And we did see some reopenings of other school districts in San Diego followed quickly by shutdowns because of COVID outbreaks. Are there school districts reopened now in San Diego? Speaker 3: 09:00 There's definitely no public school districts that have fully sort of gone back to normal, um, power unified school district. This week. They started a hybrid model sort of, uh, a half day in-person instruction for elementary school students. But there was a lot of back and forth at Poway as well. Um, they, they started this half day program back in, uh, August, September in the fall, and then they had to stop because of the winter surge. And now they're, they're back again and sort of the same thing happened at, um, Oceanside in Escondido school districts. They started in person in the fall and then had to close down in the, in the winter. Um, and those districts actually aren't back are not back yet for in-person again, Speaker 1: 09:47 I've been speaking with KPBS education reporter Joe Hong, Joe. Thanks a lot. Thank you.