Nicole Sheaff remembers her third-grader’s learning environment not as a “classroom” but a “closet.”
Her daughter, who receives special education services at Exeter School District, spent most of the third-grade separated from non-special education students, learning in a separate room during library, art, music, physical education, and recess periods, Sheaff told lawmakers this month.
The treatment was not unusual. Many New Hampshire school districts separate students with individualized education plans, pairing those students with special education teachers rather than integrating the children into a classroom with the rest of their peers. But in pushing back against the practice, Sheaff felt she did not have adequate resources. And as a mother of four children with disabilities who receive IEPs, she now points to many times when she says the school district restrained and excluded her children, while offering limited instructional time.
“I do not have the financial abilities to take a school to court for due process,” Sheaff told the House Education Committee this week. “I do not have the time or resources to fight the schools alone for FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) and inclusion. After 17 years of fighting, my children are finally receiving the services they required and are thriving. Inclusion is still in progress.”
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Parents of children with disabilities have raised concerns about New Hampshire’s special education system – and the difficulty in navigating the appeals system – for years. This year, the New Hampshire House is considering a bill to create a special watchdog position for special education services to investigate practices and advocate for individual families.
Sponsored by Sen. John Reagan, a Deerfield Republican, Senate Bill 381 would create an independent agency, the “Office of the Advocate for Special Education,” which would serve as “an advocate, coordinator, and point of contact” for parents and guardians trying to secure special education services for their children.
But some child and disability advocates oppose the idea, countering that the proposed position could be costly for the state and that existing issues should be handled by the Office of the Child Advocate or the Department of Education.
As envisioned by the bill, the new office would work to ensure that school districts are in compliance with state-required individualized education programs. And it would help to press schools to honor obligations under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act to educate students.
Parents of students with disabilities say it’s overdue. Christine Metzner, “a lawyer by trade,” struggled to understand the process to obtain a “Section 504 plan” for her son, named after the section of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that guarantees the right to a “Free Appropriate Public Education” to students regardless of disability. The family turned to a psychologist, and then a lawyer. In the end, Metzner, a Rye resident, turned to home schooling, she told lawmakers.
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Marilyn Muller of Exeter said she fought for two years to secure special education services for her elementary school-aged daughter, at one point paying $3,500 for a private neurological assessment. Despite getting the individualized educational plan and receiving special education, Muller’s daughter “exhibited further declines” with her reading. Muller now sends her daughter to private special education school.
For Sheaff, the process became a commitment.
“I know my children the best and spend an average of 20 hours a week advocating for their needs and meeting with their therapy and school staff,” Sheaff said in testimony to the House. “I recently quit my job because the amount of advocating needed for all my children surpassed what I was able to do while working full time.”
But on Monday, the state’s newly appointed child advocate, Cassandra Sanchez, spoke in opposition to the bill, arguing that her office was best positioned to take on the role. If the Legislature were to create a new ombudsman, that person should be housed within the Office of the Child Advocate, Sanchez argued. Making the new position independent of the existing office could cost the state an additional $317,000 per year, Sanchez said, citing an analysis by the OCA.
“Creating a whole new agency would be confusing for families already navigating complicated systems,” Sanchez told the committee. “A single access for assistance navigating systems and advocating for children eases the burden of already frustrated parents. Many children with complex special education needs have other needs served by multiple systems, such as developmental disability and behavioral health services, as well as juvenile justice and child protection services.”
ABLE NH, a disability rights group, also opposes the bill.
“The (Department of Education) has testified that they typically monitor six school districts a year with a staff of seven, and that to monitor more districts they would need additional funding,” wrote ABLE NH Director of Policy and Advocacy Timothy M. McKernan in testimony to the committee. “What would the cost be for the special education advocate to monitor every IEP process in every school district? We advise narrowing and detailing the advocate’s responsibilities and authority, and strengthening its accountability to the public and reporting requirements.”
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To Lisa Beaudoin, executive director of ABLE NH, the stories and experiences of parents struggling with special education services are real and important. Overhauling the public school philosophy that prefers separating students with disabilities to integrating them into the classroom is a key goal of the organization, she said in an interview.
“There is no doubt that this is a severe problem, and ABLE NH believes that schools need to transform themselves to places where all students belong in classrooms learning side by side, having inclusive general education classrooms where there’s co-teaching and students have para support and there’s universal design in the curriculum.”
But the creation of a state advocate represents a false solution that would fall short of what is needed statewide, Beaudoin argued.
“It really ends up being a panacea because the bill is not constructed to deal with the systemic issues that our public schools are facing,” she said. “And while it might be able to resolve issues for a few families a year, it’s not actually going to establish a mechanism to change what’s broken.”
Still, Senate Bill 381 appears to have strong support from parents – and lawmakers. Sixty-five people signed in to the House committee in support of the bill, with five people opposing it. The bill passed the Senate by unanimous voice vote in March.
“Instead of lawyering up, schools should be asking why so many people are asking for help,” Metzner said. “Parents do not understand the process and they don’t feel heard.”
The House Education Committee will vote on its recommendation for the bill Wednesday. It will receive a vote in the full House in the coming weeks.
This story was originally published by New Hampshire Bulletin.