Parents share struggles with special education


Barriers to services and a lack of voice in decisions are among parents’ complaints about special education in Iowa City schools.Heidi Pierce and Megan Schwalm said parents, including themselves, have faced barriers in recent years to accessing needed services for their children. They said parents are not consistently included in meetings to talk about those services — an area the Iowa Department of Education recently investigated in the Iowa City Community School District.

Both mothers said they have concerns with district leaders’ approach to special education.Schwalm said she faced a number of concerns while coordinating an education plan for her 5-year-old son, Maddox.She said her family suffered financial burdens trying to access recommended services and said Maddox’s negative behaviors increased.

“He’s not getting the services that he needs,” Schwalm said.

As part of its investigation, the department of education cited the district’s special education program for noncompliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The citations dealt with education plans, called individualized education programs or IEPs, that are unique to each student in special education.

Federal law requires schools and area education agencies to include parents in decision-making meetings about IEPs.Officials during their investigation found issues in more than 150 IEPs before and during an on-site visit in May.

The visit revealed that parents were excluded from education plan meetings and raised concerns about decisions — which services children receive, how long they last and where they take place — being predetermined.

However, she said district officials would not consider the option during Maddox’s IEP meetings.Dixon said she cannot comment on individual student situations because their records are confidential.Schwalm said her struggles seem to align with the recent citations.

“It was very clear to me, and the folks that I brought to meetings with me, that when we got in there, decisions had already been made about what services we were going to be allowed to access for my child,” she said.Schwalm said her son’s special-education team has also met without her.

She said during one meeting, district officials halted the discussion and reconvened in another room without her. When the team returned, they offered a decision about her son’s services, she said.Schwalm said parents of children with special needs often fight exhausting battles for services, which can impact their financial situations and parents’ work schedules.

Pierce said despite letters from various doctors recommending special education for Ben and Ela, district and Grant Wood Area Education Agency officials repeatedly told her they were ineligible. She said officials told her they could not provide the recommended services to address their disorders and talents.”I was just told there was no way we could ever do all of this, instead of ‘let’s figure out how this can happen,’ “she said.

Dixon said eligibility for special education is determined based on students’ disabilities and state criteria. She said the Grant Wood Area Education Agency is responsible for carrying out initial eligibility procedures, and the district works with the agency after a child is identified as a possible candidate.

Pierce said Ela now attends therapy seven days a week, although she could be accessing some services during the school day. She said this solution has helped, but is expensive and taxing for both Ela and Ben, who often sits in the waiting room.

Pierce said other families with limited access to transportation could not easily find a workaround the way her family did.”There are families who don’t have a car. … How are they going to drive their kids back and forth to therapy? It is really a human rights issue,” she said.

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