Parental push for special education watchdog opposed by children’s advocate and disability rights group

Nicole Sheaff recalls that her third-grade student’s learning environment was not a “classroom” but a “closet”.

Her daughter, who receives special education services in the Exeter School District, spent most of the third year separated from non-specialized pupils, learning in a separate room during library, art, music, physical education and recreation, Sheaff told lawmakers. this month.

The treatment was not unusual. Many New Hampshire school districts segregate students with Individual Education Plans, pairing these students with specialist teachers rather than integrating the children into a classroom with the rest of their peers. But in pushing back the practice, Sheaff felt she lacked adequate resources. And as the mother of four children with disabilities who receive IEPs, she now repeatedly points out that she says the school district restricted and excluded her children, while providing limited instruction time.

“I don’t have the financial capability to sue a school for due process,” Sheaff told the House Education Committee this week. “I don’t have the time or resources to fight schools for FAPE (free and appropriate public education) and inclusion on my own. After 17 years of struggle, my children are finally getting the services they need and are thriving. The inclusion is still in progress.

Parents of children with disabilities have raised concerns about New Hampshire’s special education system — and the difficulty of navigating the appeals system — for years. This year, 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 Republican from Deerfield, Senate Bill 381 would create an independent agency, the Office of the Special Education Advocate, to serve as an “advocate, coordinator, and point of contact.” for parents and guardians. trying to get 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 dealt with by the Office of the Children’s Advocate or the Ministry of Education. Education.

As provided by the bill, the new office would ensure that school districts are in compliance with individualized education programs required by the state. And it would help pressure schools to meet obligations under the Federal Disabilities Act to educate students.

Parents of students with disabilities say it’s overdue. ‘Lawyer by trade’ Christine Metzner struggled to understand the process of getting a ‘Section 504 plan’ for her son, named after the section of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. 1973 which guarantees the right to “free and appropriate public education”. students regardless of their disability. The family turned to a psychologist, then a lawyer. Ultimately, Metzner, a Rye resident, turned to home schooling, she told lawmakers.

Marilyn Muller from Exeter said she fought for two years to get special education services for her school-aged daughter, at one point paying $3,500 for a private neurological assessment. Despite getting the individualized educational plan and special education, Muller’s daughter “showed other declines” with her reading. Muller now sends her daughter to a specialized private school.

For Sheaff, the process has become a commitment.

“I know my kids best and I spend an average of 20 hours a week advocating for their needs and meeting with their therapy and school staff,” Sheaff said in House testimony. “I recently quit my job because the amount of advocacy needed for all of my children exceeded what I was capable of doing working full time.”

But on Monday, the state’s new children’s attorney, Cassandra Sanchez, spoke out against the bill, saying her office was best suited to take on the role. If the Legislative Assembly were to create a new ombudsman, that person should be housed within the Office of the Children’s Advocate, Sanchez argued. Making the new position independent of the existing office could cost the state an additional $317,000 a year, Sanchez said, citing an OCA analysis.

“Creating an entirely new agency would be confusing for families already navigating complicated systems,” Sanchez told the committee. “One-stop access for assistance navigating systems and advocating for children eases the burden on already frustrated parents. Many children with complex special educational 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) testified that it typically oversees six school districts a year with a staff of seven, and to oversee more districts would require additional funding,” the principal wrote. of ABLE NH Policy and Advocacy, Timothy M. McKernan in Committee testimony. “What would be the cost to the Special Education Advocate to monitor every IEP process in every school district?” We recommend restricting and detailing the lawyer’s responsibilities and authority, and strengthening his or her accountability to the public and reporting requirements.

For 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 ethos that prefers to segregate students with disabilities rather than integrate them into the classroom is a key goal of the organization, she said in an interview.

“There is no doubt that this is a serious problem, and ABLE NH believes that schools need to transform into places where all students belong in classrooms learning side by side, having rooms inclusive general education classrooms where there is co-teaching and students have para support. and there is a universal design in the program.

But creating a state attorney 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 designed to address the systemic issues that our public schools face,” she said. “And while he may be able to fix the problems of a few families a year, he’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 up for the House committee to support the bill, and five people opposed it. The bill passed the Senate unanimously in March.

“Instead of getting a lawyer, schools should ask themselves why so many people are asking for help,” Metzner said. “Parents don’t understand the process and they don’t feel listened to.

The House Education Committee will vote on its recommendation for the bill on Wednesday. It will be voted on in plenary in the coming weeks.

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